Fancy a virtuous breakfast? Pop some fruit and juice into the blender. Want to add nutrition to your child’s school lunch? Throw a smoothie into the lunchbox. Right? Well, yes and no.
US scientists Barry Popkin and George Bray are now warning that smoothies and fruit juices are the “new danger” in the battle against obesity because of their high sugar content. So, they believe, a parent who replaces a fizzy drink with a large, apparently healthy smoothie could unwittingly be giving their child the same sugar content.
Just when did eating and drinking become such a complicated business? Eat dairy products to help your bone strength but watch the fat content. Eat red meat because you need iron but not too much or you could clog your arteries. Have a glass of red wine for your heart but if you drink too much it increases your risk of cancer. It’s a minefield. And now juices and smoothies are in the firing line.
Prof Barry Popkin of the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina said last week that many people had been replacing soft drinks with juices and smoothies for health reasons. But he said drinking smoothies did not affect how much people ate. “The entire literature shows that we feel full from drinking beverages like smoothies but it does not affect our overall food intake, whereas eating an orange does,” he said.
“So pulped-up smoothies do nothing good for us but do give us the same amount of sugar as four to six oranges or a large coke. It’s deceiving.”
But Irish nutritionists are not rushing to judgment on the smoothie just yet. Prof Mary Flynn, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland's chief specialist in public health nutrition, notes that Prof Popkin is based in the US, where portion sizes are much larger. There, some smoothies come in pint-sized cups – or even larger.
“In the States, some of the smoothies can be over 1,000 calories. A woman needs only 2,000 calories a day,” she says. “And sometimes they add peanut butter, for example. But then the healthier ones can be as low as 150 to 200 calories. They are lower in portion size and just contain fruit, and if there’s dairy in them, it’s skimmed milk.”
Prof Flynn says whole fruit is preferable to smoothies and juices but some people just don’t eat fruit so if they get the vitamins and minerals through a smoothie, then that’s a good thing. “As long as it’s in moderation,” she says. “And choose one that hasn’t any added sugar, and if there’s dairy, make sure it’s low-fat dairy products.”
Nutritionist Paula Mee of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute echoes this. In the case of fruit juice, she says a lot of fibre is lost in the juicing process as it's generally found in the cell wall of the fruit or the vegetable.
“So when you squeeze it, the pulp and remains that are left in the machine are where the fibre is.” However, smoothies contain more of the fibre as the entire content of the fruit goes into the mix.
We are advised to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and she says a fruit juice should be counted as one of the five, but not more than that.
She has compared the nutritional content of 330 mls of a cola drink, unsweetened apple juice and a strawberry and banana smoothie. The smoothie is highest in calories at 178, followed by 135 for the cola and 125 for the juice. The cola has the highest sugar content at 35.3g, followed by the smoothie at 34.7 g, and the juice at 32.3 g. The smoothie contains 3.3 g of fibre, compared with none in the cola and a trace amount in the juice.
Innocent is probably the best known smoothie brand in this State. Its spokeswoman says its smoothies are made entirely from fruit. “The sugar content is clearly shown in the nutritional panel on the label,” she says.
“As smoothies are made from a combination of fruit juice and fruit puree, the latter also provides additional fibre.”
With less than a third of adults achieving the dietary goal of five-a-day, she says 100 per cent fruit juices and smoothies are a useful contribution to diets when consumed in moderation. “For both adults and children, consumers of fruit juice have better diets overall, better health indicators, for example, insulin sensitivity, and are at a lower risk of obesity, than their non-fruit-juice-drinking counterparts.”
The Beverage Council of Ireland notes that 60 per cent of people do not consume sugar sweetened drinks and of the 40 per cent who do, these products contribute only 3.6 per cent of the daily calorie intake.
A spokesman for the council says the nutritional content of soft drinks, fruit juices and smoothies is clearly stated on the label. “Fruit juice and smoothies, like any other food or drink, should be consumed as part of a balanced diet, and it’s important to remember that a glass of fruit juice or smoothie containing vitamins and minerals can count towards your five-a-day target.”
The entry of soft drink giants into juice and smoothie markets show they want to be associated with products perceived as healthier. In February, Coca-Cola said it was increasing its stake in the Innocent smoothie company above 90 per cent, while Tropicana is owned by PepsiCo.
But while the juice and smoothie market may be booming elsewhere, it has been hit by the recession here. The Beverage Council of Ireland says the sale of fruit juices and nectars (between 25-99 per cent juice) fell by 36 per cent between 2007 and 2012, though the total fruit juice market is still worth more than €100 million per year.
Market research provider Euromonitor International notes some Irish consumers “are not as willing to pay for what, in straightened times, comes to be seen as a luxury rather than an essential item. Although awareness of the health benefits of juice is strong, in comparison to other western European countries a relatively low number of Irish consumers consume juice daily.”
It says “the high sugar content of some products and calls to dilute or replace them with water has seen some consumers conclude that a healthier option for their family is to buy fresh fruit and drink water. The high acid content of some fruit and vegetable juice may also raise parental concerns about the dental health of their children”.
Innovative flavours such as blueberry or mixed fruits continue to gain share within the 100 per cent juice category with Tropicana leading that trend. “Nevertheless, orange towers above any other flavour with a 67 per cent off-trade volume share of 100 per cent juice sales in 2012.”
Batchelors owns the State’s best selling fruit juice – Squeez – and it held the largest share of the fruit and vegetable juice market – 15 per cent – last year.
Battle with obesity
But are smoothies and juices the least of our problems as our battle with obesity and diabetes spirals out of control? Prof Flynn says people's diets have changed enormously in the past 30 years.
“First of all the portion sizes have really swelled,” she says. Thirty years ago, a can of cola and a packet of crisps contained 273 calories but today it amounts to 434 calories. “The extra 161 calories come from the 330ml can swelling up to a 500ml bottle and the packet of crisps increasing from 25g to 35g,” she says.
Even the smallest convenience store heaves under the weight of confectionery surrounding its till. Then there are the fridges laden with soft drinks and energy drinks.
So are we becoming a sugar-addicted nation? Paula Mee doesn’t like the term sugar addiction, saying it gives people the impression that it’s out of their control. “They might feel they can never overcome it but I do firmly believe that we can change our behaviour by prioritising our nutrition and being confident in the changes we make.”
She says there is still a lot of debate about whether sugar addiction exists. “I often think that if it was sugar we were addicted to, then eating an apple would probably give us a hit because of the natural sugar in the apple. But I’ve never known anyone to say: ‘I’m addicted to sugar and I can’t stop eating apples and bananas’. It’s usually the chocolate bar they go for. Our love of sugar is almost built into us through advertising and the consumption of processed food. It’s constant exposure everywhere.”
She says parents must take control of children’s diets and not give them the responsibility for making the right choices. “We cannot expect them, in the face of 10 sugar-filled options, to go for a piece of fruit.”
Dr Celine Murrin, lecturer at UCD’s school of public health, says balance is the key in every diet, and people should be aware of the hidden sugars in all products. “A lot of people aren’t aware of sugar in processed products such as savoury sauces, pasta sauces, and because they are labelled as things like fructose, people don’t necessarily consider them as sugar.”
And while some cereals may appear to be healthy, she says they can have a very high sugar content. “People can be blinded by labels such as high fibre, healthy fibre, wholegrain, thinking they are entirely healthy.”
Dr Murrin encourages people to read labels and compare them with rival products. She is working with Safefood on a three-year study on food marketing to young children and says it shows pre-school children are very aware of certain brands. “They are extremely aware of products and logos at the age of four and five.”
Some people lay the blame for our craving for sugar and obesity problem at the door of the food industry. In his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, the US Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Michael Moss writes that the spiralling obesity problem is not just a matter of poor will power on the part of the consumer and food companies meeting that demand.
Moss says four years of research convinced him that there is a conscious effort in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.
Dr Murrin takes a pragmatic approach. “The food industry is the food industry, and its goal is to sell product and increase market share. We can’t run away from that,” she says. “But there is a way to make people more critical of the foods they consume, through education and health marketing. People should be more savvy and not take everything at face value, particularly when it comes to packaging and marketing.”
And while advertising of food and drink has been regulated during children’s programmes, she says the focus has switched to the internet. “You are seeing a very strong presence of food advertising on websites, particularly aimed at children, and company tie-ins,” she says. “It’s getting very complicated.”