With so many fruit juices to choose from, it can be a tough decision to pick the best as far as your health and well-being is concerned. Alex Gazzola finds out what the experts think you should be drinking.
Time was when most of us were satisfied to have only a couple of fruit juices to choose from. Most fell into one of two camps: orange juice drinkers, such as fitness fanatics and career high-flyers, downing their morning glasses to give them a vitamin and carbohydrate kick before their tough days ahead; or apple juice drinkers, perhaps the favoured choice for traditionalists and suburban families, living idyllic country lifestyles. Hard to believe, but something as exotic as grapefruit juice was once almost unheard of.
But now - since greater nutritional awareness, wider food imports and our ever more sophisticated and demanding taste buds - we appear to have an endless choice of juices available for our delectation all year round. Inevitably, many come accompanied by impressive sounding health claims. One minute cranberry appears to be in the fashionable healthy drink to sip, and yet the next it’s pomegranate being hailed as the new ‘super juice’. So which fruit juice should you be drinking - and for that matter should you even be drinking fruit juice at all?
‘We wouldn’t recommend people necessarily consume one juice over another,’ says nutritionist Claire Williamson. ‘Variety is important. You should consume at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, although be aware that only one glass of fruit juice can count towards that five, mainly because you’re not getting the fibre in juices as you are in the whole fruit.’
She adds: ‘We know that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables can help reduce the risk of a variety of diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, but we don’t necessarily know exactly which particular foods or nutrients are responsible, which is why we recommend a variety of brightly coloured fruit, which tend to be higher in antioxidants.’
Carrie Ruxton is a nutritionist with a special interest in the health benefits of fruit juices. She says research linking the consumption of fruit and fruit juices to reduced rates of cancer - although promising - is not yet conclusive, but that there is a far stronger link with heart disease prevention and cardiovascular health. She also suggests that the rule restricting fruit juice to contributing only one portion of the recommended daily five of fruit and vegetables should perhaps be relaxed in certain circumstances.
‘If you look at the relationship between fruit consumption and reduced heart disease, the evidence is certainly there - but it’s there with fruit juice consumption as well,’ she says. ‘When ‘bad’ cholesterol or low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) in the blood get oxidised by free radicals they promote atherosclerosis - or furring up of the arteries - and heart disease. If you can stop the oxidation process you can offer a protective effect on heart health, and that’s what the antioxidants - which are found in both fruit and fruit juices - can do.’
We’re certainly increasingly waking up to these benefits, with more of us choosing fruit juices over colas and other fizzy drinks. But, obviously, not all juices are created equal. So what have some of the most popular got going for them?
The perennial favourite, a very rich source of vitamin C, not only important as an antioxidant and a chemical essential in the formation of the body’s connective tissue, but also key in promoting the absorption of iron in the body, vital in preventing anaemia.
‘Orange juice is also good because it is rich in folic acid which may help to reduce heart disease,’ says Ruxton. ‘Some trials have suggested that folic acid may help keep levels of homocysteine in the blood under control - and homocysteine is implicated in arteriosclerosis and heart disease.’
Orange juice also contains pectin, a beneficial soluble fibre, and some calcium.
Seen as an ancient symbol of everlasting life, the apple is the source of popular and healthful juice. ‘It’s very rich in both malic and tartaric acids,’ says dietitian Nigel Denby, ‘and according to research, these appear to inhibit the growth of bacteria in the gut. Apple juice is also very rich in the antioxidant quercetin, which is sparking a lot of interest in cancer prevention.’
A team of researchers at the UC Davis School of Medicine in America have reported that drinking apple juice appears to allay a biological process which contributes to cardiovascular disease, while further research suggests apple juice may confer protection on the lungs against toxins. Furthermore, recent studies from Poland has found that cloudy apple juices contain four times as many polyphenols than filtered, brown apple juices - polyphenols are thought to be involved in promoting healthy blood vessels.
‘Grapefruit juice, like other citrus juices, is rich in vitamin C, but one interesting study also suggested that a glass a day may help prevent eye cataracts,’ says Denby.
Furthermore, pink or ruby grapefruit contains some lycopene, another powerful antioxidant which is found abundantly in tomatoes; while researchers at Scripps Clinic in San Diego, California, US, have found that grapefruit juice may help weight loss by lowering insulin levels in the body, which may have further positive implications in the control of diabetes. (Certain medication interacts with compounds in grapefruit juice, so always check with your doctor if you’re at all uncertain about its safety for you.)
‘There are several good studies linking grape juice with reduced incidence of heart disease,’ says Carrie Ruxton. ‘Again, the antioxidants in the grape juice appear to stop LDL getting oxidised by free radicals.’ One study, again from the States, made a strong link between Concord grape juice and reduced blood pressure.
Some natural and complementary practitioners believe grape juice can help fight fevers in childhood, aid digestion and cleanse or detoxify a clogged-up system. ‘Grape juice contains high concentrations of ellagic acid,’ adds Nigel Denby. ‘This appears to neutralise carcinogens, particularly those associated with tobacco and barbecued food. It’s also rich in potassium, so a large glass of grape juice a day may help to reduce blood pressure.’
Native South Americans held pineapple and its juice in high esteem for its supposed healing properties - ancient warriors, for example, would apply it to wounds.
‘Reputedly, pineapple juice is good for the digestion and for clear skin,’ says Denby, who recommends it as a good breakfast juice. ‘It’s also very rich in the anti-inflammatory enzyme bromelain, which is thought to be able to relieve thromboses and may reduce death rates in people with coronary heart disease.’
Although unproven, some complementary practitioners believe pineapple juice can increase mucus production, so it may be worth choosing an alternative juice during a cold.
A good choice for women, as cranberry juice is a proven help in reducing and preventing the incidence of urinary tract and bladder infections.
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A clinical study by researchers at Laval University, Quebec, Canada, also showed that cranberry juice can increase the levels of ‘good’ cholesterol in the blood by 8%, as well as provide antioxidant protection against bad cholesterol. Other studies have shown cranberry juice has strong anti-viral properties and linked it with a reduced risk of both gum disease and stomach ulcers. (As with grapefruit juice, there are some medical contraindications with cranberry juice, such as with the drug warfarin, so do talk to your doctor if you’re uncertain.)
Prunes have the highest antioxidant rating of all fruits and vegetables, a characteristic shared with its juice, which is also a useful source of A and B vitamins, and the minerals potassium, iron, manganese and copper.
‘And of course they have a good laxative effect, useful in combating constipation,’ adds Denby. ‘The effect comes from a chemical called hydroxy-phenylisatin which stimulates the smooth muscles of the colon.’
Prune juice is used widely in Chinese medicine as a morning detoxifier and purifier, and is reputedly more effective when drunk at room temperature.
Another ‘super-juice’, reputed to have many curative capabilities, extremely rich in antioxidants, and a relatively new arrival in the west. By similar mechanisms to cranberry juice and grape juice, it is believed to reduce cholesterol oxidation and therefore levels of LDL in the system. An increasing body of research is showing that pomegranate juice is helpful in preventing furring up of the arteries.
Native to the Middle East, the juice of the pomegranate is recommended to pregnant women in Iran as it is rich in iron - not to mention a useful source of copper and potassium.
What’s the next big juice?
Here are three juices you may be hearing a lot more from in years to come.
Reputedly the favourite fruit of Queen Victoria of Great Britain, the mangosteen is an apple-sized fruit with purple rind and white segments, originating from India. Its juice, sometimes referred to as xango juice, has been variously credited with treating diarrhoea, menstrual problems, eczema and various other conditions.
Potato-like soft fruit, native to the South Pacific Islands and sometimes called the Indian mulberry, whose supposedly healing juice has been used traditionally for high blood pressure, arthritis, stress, cancer, skin problems and many other conditions besides, and which is the subject of much speculation and research.
An Amazonian berry, whose mud-like or syrupy thick juice is extremely popular in Brazil, is rich in antioxidants called anthocyanins, and is reputed to be a cancer preventative, blood sugar stabiliser and... an aphrodisiac. It is high in iron, calcium, vitamins and essential fatty acids too.
Where possible, choose juices with their pulp, which aren’t strained, as they have more nutrients,’ says Denby. ‘If you go for these juices ‘with bits’, it’ll lower the glycaemic (GI) effect on the body, making for slower digestion, which is beneficial.’
Choose freshly squeezed juices if possible,’ says Claire Williamson. ‘The more processing a juice has, the more nutrients will be lost, so freshly squeezed juice is going to be higher in vitamin C than juices produced from concentrates, because the vitamin is quite fragile.’
‘Consider buying smaller cartons, rather than large two-litre ones, if you don’t drink much juice or are only buying for yourself,’ says Denby. ‘Once a carton is open and exposed to the air, the antioxidant levels of the juice can reduce quite rapidly.’
‘Look for juices with no or low added sugars,’ says Williamson. ‘Added sugar, on the other hand, doesn’t affect the nutrient content. So if a juice is just too sour without it - such as cranberry juice - and it needs some sugar to make it palatable, that’s absolutely fine. The main concern with added sugar is in relation to tooth decay, so just watch your intakes.’