The new sugar tax on soft drinks excludes fruit juices, as they are legally labelled as having ‘no added sugar’. With child obesity levels ever-increasing, especially among lower socio-economic groups, this worries us.
It also highlights the increasingly frequent and often damaging disconnect between legislation, nutrition science and public health guidance.
Fruit juice is a liquid form of ‘free sugars’, with little of the fibre naturally found in fruit. Additionally, some of the essential vitamins present in fruit juice such as B vitamins, folate and vitamin C are added to fruit juice at the end of processing. So the perception of it as a ‘naturally healthy’ drink is misleading.
Here’s why and when we’re concerned about fruit juice…
Confusing labelling: no added sugar, one of your five a day
‘Added’ vs ‘free’ sugars
With fruit juice packaging labelled with ‘no added sugars’ and the government’s ‘counts as one of your five a day,’ it’s not surprising that consumers perceive fruit juice as better for you than sweetened soft drinks.
EU law permits 100% fruit juice that does not contain any other forms of ‘added sugars’ to be labelled as having ‘no added sugars’.
That sounds logical, right? Except it clashes with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Public Health England (PHE), who both classify fruit juice as a source of ‘free’ sugars. This is because structure of the fruit has been broken down to release sugars in their free form, which behave in the same way in the body as other forms of more commonly understood ‘free’ sugars, for example table sugar. Like fruit juice, table sugar is simply a result of extracting/freeing naturally occurring sugars from the structure of the beet or cane plant.
The most recent PHE publication in March this year makes things crystal clear, ‘[Free sugars are] all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices’.
Vitamins, minerals and fibre in fruit juice
Despite this clear scientific reasoning on sugar, PHE continues to permit 150ml daily allowance of fruit juice to count as one of your five a day.
This is based on the fact that the UK continues to under-consume whole fruit and vegetables, which are critical to meet our essential vitamin C and potassium requirements.
150ml orange juice is equivalent to a medium orange for vitamins, minerals and total sugars. It will provide vitamin C in excess of our requirements and 7-30% of our potassium needs (depending on age), plus vitamin B1 (thiamine). However:
- Fibre: fruit juice 0.1 – 0.9g per 150ml (even one with ‘bits’) vs a medium orange at 1.9g.
- Free sugars: fruit juice 12.3g vs none in a medium orange.
The truth about fruit juice sugars
In terms of free sugars, weight for weight there’s little difference between fruit juice and soft drinks.
|Amount of free sugars||% daily free sugars max. recommendations|
|2-3 yr olds (14g)||4-6 yr olds
|7-10 yr old
|11 yr olds and older
|1 medium (160g) orange||0||0%||0%||0%||0%|
|150ml pure orange juice||12.3g||88%||65%||51%||41%|
|150ml cola drink||16.4g||117%||86%||68%||55%|
Studies looking at fruit juice intakes and impact on health proved challenging for SACN when reviewing their recommendations. Evidence for fruit juice and impact on health was found to be lacking, inconsistent and / or of poor quality.
The problem of portion size
If everyone was to keep to 150ml of a sweetened liquid per day, there would be no issue with fruit juice or sweetened beverages. The problem is, this official advice is given to a nation where it has been found that only 1% of the UK population achieve healthy eating recommendations.This 150ml of sweetened liquid per day will in reality not be followed or achieved by the majority. Not least because it’s difficult to keep to 150ml of fruit juice when, in the main, it is sold in 200ml and 1litre cartons, and most household glasses are around 200-250ml.
Fruit juice is the top contributor to free sugars’ intake for young people
According to the government’s 2018 National Diet and Nutrition Survey, fruit juice remains the number one free sugars contributor for 1½ to 10 year olds. This is highly indicative of mum’s perception that fruit juice, unlike sweetened soft drinks, is ‘natural’, has ‘no added sugars’ and therefore good for their children.
During teen years, sweetened beverages takes prominent first place. Fruit juice drops down to third position but still contributing to almost 10%.
It’s not just weight that’s an issue. The UK has one of the highest incidence of dental caries globally. Dental health is dependent on multiple factors, including the frequency and timing of sugar consumption and length of time teeth and gums are exposed to acidic and sugary foods.
Both fruit juice and sweetened beverages are acidic and contain large amounts of ‘free sugars’. They are therefore not recommended by the British Dental Association (BDA). If fruit juice is to be consumed, the BDA recommends diluting it – 1 part juice to 10 parts water. Despite a common misconception around whole fruit, the BDA highlights that fruit, although acidic, is not a risk to dental health except when consumed in unusually large quantities.
The bottom line is that consumers need to be aware that there is little difference between sweetened beverages and fruit juice when it comes to tooth decay. The recommended drink by all health organisations is either water or milk for optimum health.
What would we like to see?
Free sugars are not essential for human health. Due to our over-consumption, they have become a major contributor to our calorie over-consumption.
However, it would be unrealistic to avoid them altogether, and if consumed in moderation as part of a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle, there should be no problem at all. The government has set maximum recommended intakes for all ages.
- 0-1 year = no free sugars should be introduced
- 2-3 years = no more than 14g / 3½ tsp per day
- 4-6 years = no more than 19g / 4½ tsp per day
- 7-10 years = no more than 24g / 6 tsp per day
- 11 years plus = no more than 30g / 7 tsp per day
In the context of the current health state of our nation, consumers are struggling with the ‘in moderation’ and ‘balanced diet’ (otherwise obesity and obesity-related diseases would not continue to escalate).We are at crisis point with our unhealthy choices, which are having untold preventable health and economic impacts.
People need clearer advice and support to stop over-consumption and have a healthier understanding and relationship with food and drink.
When it comes to fruit juice, we believe it’s time to start promoting the benefits of consuming real fruit, which provide so much more nutrition, contain no free sugars and very unlikely to be over-consumed.
The law should change to take into consideration international and national classifications of ‘free’ and ‘added’ sugars.
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