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Why Fruit Juice Is the Real Health Killer

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Soda pop has gone from being a cute nickname for the dreamiest character in The Outsiders to the bogeyman of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration, which last fall banned the sale of "large sodas and other sugary drinks."

At the time, Bloomberg boasted, "This is the single biggest step any city, I think, has ever taken to curb obesity." While perhaps true, the billionaire mayor seriously oversold his 16-plus oz. ban, since the bylaw will not affect fruit juices or dairy-based drinks like chocolate milk.

Yes, soft drinks are still consumed in too-huge quantities but, at this point, all parents know that they're bad for their kids. They may still serve soda, but long gone are the days when even my yoga-teacher hippie mom would pick up cases of supernaturally coloured Pop Shoppe drinks. Jolt Cola, which proudly launched in the mid-'80s with the slogan "all the sugar and twice the caffeine," is long bankrupt. Times have changed. Just as smokers know smoking is bad for them, soft-drink junkies know they really shouldn't be downing the fizzy stuff.

Infinitely more insidious, however, is juice.

Like Bloomberg, many parents consider juice to be a healthy beverage, but calorie-wise it has "drop for drop the same as soda pop," according to Ottawa-based family doctor, University of Ottawa prof, and Weighty Matters blogger Yoni Freedhoff, who also cites an Australian study that found juice can double the risk of obesity in children 4 to 12. Yes, double.

Why? Essentially, fruit juice is sugar water with vitamins and minerals--and it boasts about four to five teaspoons of sugar per glass, unless you're talking grape juice, which has considerably more. And that's for no-added-sugar, 100 per cent pure juice, not the faux fruit "drinks" that brag about including a small percentage of real juice.

Yes, assailing the evils of all-natural fruit juice seems totally counter-intuitive, because fruit is healthy, right? Yes, whole fruit still has all the fructose-based calories, but you consume far less of them than in squeezed form--a single glass of juice is composed of five or six stomach-filling apples--and it comes with a vital fibre that limits the absorption of sugar.

What you need to do as a health-conscious parent is give your children water and actual fruit, and treat juice as just that: a treat. If you wouldn't give your kid Coca-Cola, then you should also think twice about giving 'em OJ.

The Globe & Mail found a cup of orange juice had 23 grams of sugar while a can of Coke had 26 grams of sugar, if fewer total calories. But because juice is considered healthy, it's an even bigger danger as the American Association of Pediatricians found in their study, "The Use and Misuse of Fruit Juice," that parents don't restrict its consumption in the way they would with pop.

My three-year-old, Emile, eats fruit every day ranging from apples and apricots to berries and bananas to peaches and pears, just as the Canada Food Guide (and, y'know, common sense) recommends. But while the CFG seems to think that fruit juice is a fine alternative to real fruit, my wife and I just don't serve it. E's had it before--juice boxes at birthday parties or little cups at daycare recitals--but we simply don't have it the house. He drinks either water or milk because those are the only options we give him.

As a treat, however, we do have "chocolate milk"--or at least what E thinks is chocolate milk. In reality, it is unsweetened coco-flavoured almond milk, which contains zero grams of sugar compared to 25 grams in Sealtest brand chocolate milk and 29 grams in Nesquick, the Nestle drink with the bunny-rabbit mascot designed with kids in mind. (I'd also recommend almond butter over peanut butter--tastes just as yummy but is considerably healthier.)

Another treat option splits the difference between fruit juice and fruit--and it's squeezable. Products like GoGo squeeZ are 100 per cent fruit-based, and mushed--like applesauce--into a single-serve pouch (though they still have some juice concentrate). While not as healthy as plain ol' fruit because it is a processed product, it's still convenient as an occasional treat. (We keep one in the car for emergency meltdown prevention while driving.) One GoGo squeeZ applesauce packet has 60 calories, 12 grams of sugar, and 1 gram of fibre compared to the 130 calories, 24 grams of sugar, and zero fibre in a glass of apple juice.

Dr Robert H. Lustig, pediatrics professor and infamous author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease, wrote in Time magazine about the toxicity of fructose in high doses. He says it affects the brain's pleasure centre, like alcohol, and that "in animal studies, fructose causes the four criteria of addiction: bingeing, withdrawal, craving, and sensitization to other addictive substances (meaning after chronic exposure to sugar, it's easier to get hooked on another drug)."

Small amounts of sugar in, say, fruit is fine (largely thanks to the accompanying fibre), but the amount of sugar people consume nowadays is simply dangerous--an amount that Lustig says has jumped from four to 22 teaspoons a day since 1990. This is why childhood obesity now impacts 26 per cent of Canadian kids (or 1.6 million of them), and a third of American ones.

So yes, fruit juice is better for you than soft drinks on a glass-by-glass basis because of natural vitamins and minerals--though, often, they're added back in, along with "flavor packs," after processing removes them, a circumstance that's made Tropicana the subject of lawsuits over its "all natural" OJ labeling. But the minor nutritional benefits are dramatically outweighed by the major danger of too much sugar. And the fact that the industry has tricked people into thinking fruit juice is healthy makes it, in my view, worse.

Consider it the nutritional equivalent of that Keyser Söze quote: "the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."

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