The secret to choosing a healthy fruit juice is to carefully read the label. Manufacturers use specific language, as required by law, to describe the juice. But it's easy to be fooled—if you don't know the code.
The ideal healthy fruit juice
How important are these criteria? The most important is that the juice is "100% fruit juice." Avoid sweeteners; fruit doesn't need them. Healthy fruit juice is entirely fruit juice.
Some additives are worse than others, and some preservatives are difficult but not impossible to avoid.
Juice "not from concentrate" minimizes mold contamination. Juice that includes puree or pulp has more fiber and less effect on blood sugar. Organic juice avoids concentrating pesticides into the juice. These last three criteria also usually indicate a better-tasting, higher-quality healthy fruit juice.
Always read the ingredients list. There is where you will see unexpected ingredients.
The ingredients are listed in order of volume. The ingredient listed first is the largest ingredient; the ingredient listed second is the second largest ingredient, and so on. This will reveal, for example, if a beverage is mostly sugar water; mostly apple juice; or mostly the juice you expect.
Here's an example of an excellent ingredients list, from a very healthy fruit juice labeled "100% Fruit Juice" and "USDA Organic." It contains no additives and is not from concentrate.
"Contains: Fresh pressed juice from whole ripe certified organic pomegranates."
(See my review of this juice.)
Look on the label for the words "100% fruit juice." This means that, except for additives and flavors, the contents are the juice from fruit.
If you see the words "drink," "cocktail," "beverage," or (in the United States) "nectar" anywhere on the label, this is code meaning that it could contain as little as 1% fruit juice. According to FDA regulations, anything that contains more than 0% fruit juice can be called "fruit juice," but must also be labeled "drink," "cocktail," "beverage," or "nectar."
Examples of drinks that can contain as little as 1% fruit juice:
Orange juice drink
Grape juice beverage
Fruit juice cocktail
It's easy to be misled when seeing the words "fruit juice" or "juice": you have to look further for what the FDA calls the "qualifying term." "Drink," "cocktail," "beverage," and "nectar" all indicate that the beverage is not what we think of as fruit juice, even if the beverage is also called "fruit juice." Only "100% fruit juice" is real fruit juice!
Most of a "drink," "cocktail," or "beverage" is likely corn syrup or sugar. You can confirm this by reading the ingredients list. It is likely that the first ingredient will be "sugar," "corn syrup," or even "organic cane syrup."
These drinks are generally no better than soda pop; they are usually sugar beverages, or sugar-substitute beverages, flavored by fruit flavors and a small amount of fruit juice.
Additives will be named in the ingredients list, or referred to by vague names such as "flavors" in the ingredients list.
I recommend avoiding all additives in fruit juices. It is, however, difficult to avoid all additives even in 100% fruit juice. 100% fruit juices with no additives are likely to be found only in natural food stores and will be more expensive; and the choices will be very limited.
Therefore I've divided additives into the worst (to always avoid), the less bad (to generally avoid), and the additives most difficult to avoid (where compromises might best be made).
However, if you can avoid all additives, you can avoid with 100% certainty: MSG, gluten, and genetically modified organisms—any of which can be hidden in typical additives.
The following additives have no place in a healthy fruit juice.
Artificial sweeteners are neurological poisons.
Colors and dyes have been linked to cancer and to hyperactivity. There is no good reason to ingest coloring agents.
High fructose corn syrup affects blood sugar to the point that it is thought to be a major cause of the recent increase in the rate of diabetes.
Artificial flavors can include artificial "flavor enhancers," such as Senomyx, that affect the perception of taste. That is, they have neurological effects.
Natural sweeteners (honey, agave, etc.)
A quality fruit juice should not need any sweeteners!
Preservatives such as ascorbic acid, citric acid, malic acid.
Flavors, such as the ingredient "Natural flavors."
Thickeners, such as carrageenan and xanthan gum.
These additives are common even in organic 100% fruit juice. The additives are manufactured in unhealthy industrial processes, and the vague term "Flavors" can hide very unhealthy additives.
"Natural Flavors" is a common ingredient in 100% fruit juice, and I have been unable to find out why flavor additives are used, or what they consist of.
Ingredients listed on a label as "Natural flavors" can legally contain up to 20% MSG. Like artificial sweeteners, MSG is a neurological poison.
Some additives are made in processes that create free glutamic acid, essentially a form of MSG with identical effects, within the additive. Citric acid and carrageenan are two of these.
For those who need to avoid gluten, MSG and other additives are frequently made from wheat. Other additives are made by or from genetically modified organisms.
100% fruit juice, not from concentrate, but bottled immediately after pressing ("fresh pressed") is desirable in a healthy fruit juice.
Juices, however, are typically "from concentrate" and "reconstituted." This will be stated on the label and in the ingredients list. Fruit is made into a juice concentrate in one factory, and in another factory reconstituted with water to be bottled. These juices have had, of course, additional industrial processing; the concentrates introduce enough mold to be banned on certain allergy diets; and the concentrates inherently have unclear contents and origins.
Concentrates are frequently from foreign countries, such as China. Apple juice concentrate in the U.S. is typically sourced from China.
Puree and pulp are the crushed-up flesh of the fruit. This is very desirable in a healthy fruit juice: the fiber from puree or pulp helps prevent the juice from spiking your blood sugar. The smoothie-like consistency of a juice that contains puree can also be very enjoyable.
Organic fruit juice is labeled "USDA Organic." If those words aren't used, then the juice isn't organic.
"100% organic" is the term used for an entirely organic product. "Organic" (without the "100%") means 95% organic!
"Made with organic ingredients" means at least 70% of the ingredients are organic. These products do not display the words "USDA Organic."
Organic juice has advantages for a healthy fruit juice:
No pesticides are used in the growing of fruit in organic farming. This is particularly important for fruit juice. When juice is made, any pesticides contained in the fruit are concentrated into the juice. Many more pieces of fruit go into a serving of fruit juice than would typically be eaten at one time.
Additives in organic foods are generally less harmful than in conventional foods, and there should be no genetically modified ingredients.
And, organic fruits have been shown to contain a higher level of antioxidants than conventional fruits do.
Thus, organic fruit contributes to a healthy fruit juice.
More Information On Organic Labeling
USDA National Organic Program: Organic Labeling and Marketing Information (PDF)
After reading the label to evaluate the juice by the above standards, which fruits are the best in bottled fruit juice?
Unfortunately, in bottled juice, all enzymes have been destroyed by the bottling / canning process. The best choice, then, of a bottled healthy fruit juice is based on its phytonutrients and antioxidants that survive heat treatment.
The majority of 100% fruit juice blends exist to dilute a more expensive juice with cheaper and sometimes sweeter juices. These cheaper juices include apple, grape, and pear.
There may be exceptions, but most blends, even of 100% fruit juice, usually contain considerably more additives, sweeteners, and other ingredients.
I'd rather buy the more expensive, more health-promoting, and higher antioxidant juices in a purer form and drink less of them, or create my own blends.
There are many extremely low quality juices made from the most common fruits. Orange juice, for example, is generally made from substandard and moldy oranges, rind and all.
Common juices of frequent low quality:
Apple, grape, orange
Juices mainly used for natural sugar content:
Apple, white grape, pear
Tropical and citrus fruits:
Orange (good quality)
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry analyzed some brand-name juices (along with wine and tea) to compare the antioxidant levels of juices based on various fruits.
The study used four different "tests of antioxidant potency," including the well-known ORAC analysis:
and two tests of "antioxidant functionality" in inhibiting low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the "bad" cholesterol) oxidation.
The researchers made a composite index for these measures of antioxidants.
The ORAC rankings were somewhat different from the composite index rankings. There was some variation between brands, which the researchers averaged into an average for each fruit juice. I'm excluding the acai juices, which appear to me to be blends, and I've rounded the scores into ranges for each fruit.
Fruit Juices Ranked By Composite Index For Antioxidant Potency
Pomegranate: 95.8 (one juice tested)
Concord Grape: 61.7 (range 58-70)
Blueberry: 50.9 (range 41-61)
Black Cherry: 46.5 (range 40-57)
Cranberry: 38.0 (range 27-53)
Orange: 19.1 (range 18-20)
Apple: 14.6 (range 14-15)
Fruit Juices Ranked By ORAC Antioxidant Index
Concord Grape: 81.7 (range 66-96)
Black Cherry: 79.8 (range 70-100)
Pomegranate: 78.9 (one juice tested)
Blueberry: 65.0 (range 46-75)
Cranberry: 48.9 (range 29-68)
Orange: 23.3 (range 19-29)
Apple: 15.1 (range 8-20)
Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry: Comparison of Antioxidant Potency of Commonly Consumed Polyphenol-Rich Beverages in the United States (PDF)
"A pocket guide to the revolutionary ORAC scale for choosing healthy foods."
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