Several years ago fruit juice was considered a healthy drink, one carton of juice would make up one of your 5-a-day portions of fruit and veg. Smoothies were also very popular, with everyone trying out new concoctions they’d made at home or buying one of the branded smoothies with all sorts of fruits, vegetables and spices added to them. Until a few years ago the idea of having these fruit based drinks was considered healthy, so why is the advice now to ditch the juices and smoothies? Are they really as bad as fizzy, sugary drinks, or has the advice gone a little too far?
I’ve always drunk fruit juices since I was little. I grew up with cartons of orange, pineapple and apple juice and lots of more exotic flavours. Throughout my childhood and teens these drinks were considered healthy and I preferred the taste of them to lots of the carbonated ones. It never crossed my mind that pure juice from a fruit was unhealthy and I have to admit, I’m still struggling with this concept. Sure they contain a lot of sugar, after all so do fruits in general, but could they really be as unhealthy as the sugary drinks I’d also consumed as a child?
Smoothies were another drink I loved to try and I especially got interested when a certain smoothie company in the UK took off with a big range of different smoothies. They were all natural ingredients and later I tried making them for myself. I’ve tried lots of different recipes over the years using a variety of very different ingredients both fruits and vegetables along with a few other things to flavour them. With smoothies you can add a whole range of good stuff, but now these drinks are beginning to face the same wrath as fruit juice, seen as unhealthy and even potentially leading to long-term damage or our bodies if we continue to drink them. But why are these two drinks now seen as unhealthy? What is it about them that’s so bad?
The Sugar Debate
The main problem with juices and smoothies is their sugar content. Experts now say that these drinks are filled with sugar, so much so in fact that many are suggesting they are worse than many carbonated drinks. The sugar content is so high that once consumed it will make your blood sugars spike. As someone with diabetes I have to agree that this is possible. Whenever I drink fruit juice that’s eithe rfrom concentrate or the fresh stuff, it does make my blood sugars spike.
We’ve probably all heard of the Glycaemic Index (GI) by now. Low GI foods are the ones we’re supposed to eat, they release sugars slowly into our blood stream slowly and gradually over time and will give us a good balance of blood sugar which is good for our overall health. High GI foods do the opposite, they make your blood sugars spike fast, only minutes after you consume them, followed by a drop in your blood sugars soon(ish) after which can lead you tofeel more tired throughout the day. Juices and smoothies are high GI foods, and this unhealthy sugar spike in is just one reason why their sugar content is seen as so unhealthy.
Another reason the sugar is seen as so bad is the age old discussion over obesity. It’s a known fact that in general the population suffers from weight problems and there are a lot of children facing the same problem too. Obesity is not a good thing and I’m sure everyone can agree to that, it leads to all sorts of health problems as well as making people feel generally miserable on the inside a lot of the time. It can also lead to type 2 diabetes though which happens if the pancreas is overly exhausted from too much sugar consumed. So it’s understandable that experts are trying to advise against anything with lots of sugar in it. But is demonising fruit juices and smoothies really the right way to go about fighting an obesity crisis? And what are the alternatives if we don’t consume sugar?
What’s the Alternative?
What other alternatives do we have to our juices and smoothies, or general sugar for that matter? When it comes to sugary drinks everyone will say that water is a good alternative, but if you’ve lived a long time on sugary drinks of any kind then water will seem bland and oftne unpleasant on the palette. Not everyone is ready to drink pure water and for some, including me when I was younger, the idea of pure water with no flavouring to it made me feel sick. So drinking some kind of sweetened drink was necessary otherwise I’d have struggled to drink anything at all, and not drinking can lead to deyhydration which itself leads to all sorts of other health problems.
Another alternative that’s now being adopted by the majority of drinks companies are sweeteners. Drinks with sweeteners as opposed to pure sugar have been on the market for decades, but with the new sugar tax here in the UK, and the recent bad press all sugar has gotten from the media, companies seem to be putting sweeteners into drinks as ‘healthy’ alternative to the ‘unhealthy’ sugar. But are sweeteners really that good?
The type of sweeteners used is important. If we are talking about something like stevia which comes from a plant base then you could argue it’s a good alternative that’s also quite healthy. However the cheapest and easiest form of sweeteners out there, which most companies are using, are artificial ones. Things like aspartame, acesulfame K and saccharin are all artificially created and although some experts have stated they are safe for human consumption, the long-term effects of them are still in debate. Over a decade ago people were demonising the sweeteners and there was a movement of people looking for natural alternatives after people found questionable evidence over the safety of these sweeteners. There is still a large amount of people who distrust these sweeteners use, especially in larger quantities and there are some well-known problems that sweetener consumption can cause.
Artificial sweeteners can cause gut problems which I can personally attest to. I had a very unpleasant reaction to some sweetener based chocolate when I was craving it and tried out a ‘diabetic’ alternative to sugary chocolate. It caused some very severe cramping in my stomach for a long time and…well let’s just say I did later read the packet and see that you had to consume a tiny amount or else they’d have a very strong laxative effect! 🤭🤦♀️ There’s also aparantely evidence to show that sweeteners can stimulate and increase your appetite, which doesn’t exactly make it a great alternative for fighting obesity! And of course these sweeteners just might not be up to everyone’s taste buds. However, we’ve demonised and put sugary drinks in such a negative light that these sweeteners are being consumed in huge amounts now (and their manufacturers are getting a lot of money for their products).
Reason to Rethink
Many people won’t agree with me about this and I don’t dispute the health experts findings that juices and smoothies can be bad for you. But there are reasons why I disagree, and I’ll share with you here:
- Fruit juices are nothing more than pressed/squeezed fruits. The type you often get in a carton is concentrated juice, and I’m not going into discussing those because they have had all sorts of processes done to them, but pure squeezed fruits provide their juice which I still see as healthy. They still contain all the vitamins and minerals which the fruits had inside, such as vitamin C.
- People who don’t like to eat fruit may be swayed by juices/smoothies. Despite the fact that fruits are sweet, there’s plenty of people who just aren’t into fruits of vegetables, these people (maybe it’s you?) will often shy away from eating actual fruits but might try a drink if they are squeezed or blended, and they might actually enjoy it, which can only be a good thing. This also applies to any fruits which even the most avid eater just might not enjoy, blending or squeezing might just make them taste better. You can also add all sorts of stuff you wouldn’t normally try, for example I’m no fan of eating lots of spinach leaves, but putting a few into a smoothie blend and I don’t even taste them, but am still getting al that green goodness!
- There’s not always time for 5-a-day. This might seem like a crazy answer to everyone who eats their five portions of fruits and vegetables daily, but the fact is there’s plenty of others struggle to eat so many fruits and vegetables. Smoothies, in particular, are good at getting these five portions of fruit and veg consumed because fruits and veg blended is just easier and often tastier to drink than eating them on their own, you can also fit more of these into one glass than you ever could without having them crushed and blended first.
- Sometimes there’s a need for high GI foods. It may seem strange to those who have never considered it, but as a diabetic on insulin I can tell you that high GI foods, and I do mean fruit juices here, are indeed necessary when things go wrong. I won’t go into details about the ins and outs of diabetes, but the fact is that those treated on insulin can suffer extremely low blood sugars that get dangerously lower than a non-diabetic will ever experience. The blood sugar can drop so low it becomes life threatening and and can lead to coma and worse! These episodes are called hypos, or hypoglycaemia, and the only treatment for such an event is around 20g of pure sugar. Eating things like biscuits and break just doesn’t work fast enough and the best and fastest fix for this is pure sugar. But pure sugar cubes consumed can taste yucky 9and believe me I used to carry them around at school in my pocket…in a bag in my pocket!) But pure sugar is difficult to eat. I could add it to water but the thoughts of drinking that makes me want to be sick! So I’d much rather have a drink of fruit juice which fixes the hypo, immproves my mood because it tasts so good and at the same time I can get some extra vitamins and minerals in the process 🙂
Can Juices and Smoothies be Healthier?
Yes! There’s plenty of things we can do to make them healthier for us. We just have to be aware of how we consume these and take steps to make things better:
- Fruit juices can be watered down, like squash, to make a healthier, lower GI, drink. This is also a good trick to do with children (and even yourself) if they don’t enjoy drinking pure water. These days I do drink water on its own sometimes but I weened myself off of only drinking juice by watering it down with more and more water over several weeks.
- Drink juices while eating food. These high GI drinks will not have such a strong effect on blood sugar levels when drunk while eating lower GI foods. The combination of both high and low GI foods at once stops the high ones from being so effective. Again I can prove this through my own diabetic experiences, as drinking juice while eating food doesn’t affect my own blood sugars so much.
- Try smoothies rather than juicing. Blending the whole fruit and drinking the thicker liquid means you are consuming every part of the fruit, even the bulk and bits you may not usually like (or course be sensible, don’t blend apple pips for example…unless you really want to try that?). The added bonus of smoothies is you can add some other fruits and even vegetables, yogurt or spices to make an even healthier drink and the spices can give it extra flavouring.
Should we Stop Drinking Juices and Smoothies?
I personally don’t believe we should. I think if they are something we enjoy we should still be able to enjoy them. The key word is moderation. As long as we don’t go crazy and drink way too much of the stuff, which goes the same for all foods considered ‘bad’ for us, and as long as we try our best to eat a healthy, lower GI diet, we should be able to drink smoothies and juices without worrying too much.
I’m not a dietician, but the advice I’ve heard from many is always changing. Years ago the advice was for everything to be natural, then a sweetener fad came in, then we went natural again and now we’re going back to sweeterners again. There’s always new evidence flooding in and chaning our perspectives so always look at the advice given and see who it comes from and who funds it (a bit conspiracy theory here: but it is true that sometimes research is funded by the manufacturers or those foods we’re suddenly told are safe!)
Regardless of what you think though: one thing is clear, there are far worse foods out there than pure fruits. And as long as we watch how much sugars we take in, and find ways to off-set it (such as watering down drinks or drinking while eating sensible food and even exercising afterwards) then we should be able to enjoy the occasional smoothies and fruit juices without a negative impact on our lives.
Please seek proper medical advice if you are concerned about any aspect of your diet. I am in no way medically trained, the above is an observation and an educated article based on my own experiences with diet, diabetes and eating.
-Article inspired and re-written from previous version which appeared online June 2018.
Do you enjoy drinking fruit juices or smoothies? What do you think about all the negative press surrounding fuit juices and sugar recently? Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂