Is Juicing Healthy? The Definitive Response You Weren’t Expecting

juice

It seems like everywhere you go these days, you hear mention of juice: cold-pressed juice, juicing machines, all-natural juice. But we all know by now to be wary of words without a clear definition, and attributing juice with the words “natural” and “fresh” doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all. So let’s set the record straight: is juicing healthy?

To get to the bottom of the debate, we enlisted the help of several experts and asked them the burning question: Is juicing healthy? What we discovered may surprise you.

Experts agree that juicing does add some benefits to the diet of the average American, particularly those who are having a hard time eating their five-a-day. “If you take a look at your diet and you are really not eating kale and celery and beets, juicing them is far better than not eating them,” says Robin Asbell, author of “Juice It! Energizing Juices for All Times of Day.”

“Juicing allows you to get the amazing nutritious plant chemicals, like cancer-preventing antioxidants, in concentrated form, in a tasty drink. For some people, this is more palatable than eating a big pile of raw vegetables at every meal.”

Lisa Sussman, author of “Cold Press Juice Bible: 300 Delicious, Nutritious, All-Natural Recipes for Your Masticating Juicer,” agrees that juicing is a good idea for those who don’t find eating the USDA recommended 9 daily servings of fruits and veggies all that exciting. “​Unless you are a herbivore who spends your day grazing, this means that pretty much everyone can benefit from drinking their veggies and fruits once a day at least,” she says.

But what about for those of us who have already converted to a mostly plant diet — what are the pros and cons of this fad?

Identifying Enemy Number 1: Fructose

When you hear about the cons of juicing, the first word on most nay-sayers’ lips is “sugar.” And it’s no surprise: sugar has long been a bad guy for weight loss regimens and general health, and fructose is one of the main elements of juice.

But let’s set things straight: first off, fructose isn’t all bad. “A healthy body typically needs 15 grams​ of fructose a day,” says Lisa. “​This is then converted to glycogen (liver starch) ​and stored for a shot of quick energy​ after, for example, an intense work-out.”

Sounds like good news, right?

Unfortunately, the problem stems from the same source as many of our problems when it comes to nutrition: moderation.

“We have a tendency to consume too much fructose – not surprising since it is in practically everything from agave syrup to tortilla chips,” says Lisa. “​Too much fructose ​from any source ​and our digestive system – specifically the liver – becomes overwhelmed and unable to process it fast enough for the body to use as sugar.” This can lead to all sorts of problems, including heart disease, high cholesterol, liver disease, type-2 diabetes and even certain forms of cancer.

But the fructose in fruit isn’t quite as dangerous as the high fructose corn syrup we find in many processed foods. Some have even gone so far as to call fructose a “good sugar,” though that myth has recently been debunked by many sources. But Rafael Avila, Manager of Research and Development at Natural Organics, Inc. and a former scientific editor, writer and contributor for national wellness magazines, hits the nail on the head when it comes to striking a balance between quaking in fear when fructose is mentioned and over-eating (or drinking!) foods containing fructose.

“The great risk is in guiding the public down the wrong path, as many others seem to be doing, by fostering the misconception that fresh fruits and fresh fruit juices should be avoided due to the adverse effects of fructose,” he says. “Consumers tend to latch onto the nutritional villain of the month and let the associated sound bites govern their understandings and behavior. This has had some dire consequences when it comes to the natural sugars present in fruits and vegetables.”

In short, the fructose naturally present in fruit and vegetables isn’t all bad. In fact, we need natural sugars to survive. The question is how to get it into our systems, and according to Danielle Omar, author of “Skinny Juices,” juice is a viable option. “The sugar in homemade juices also comes packaged with nutrients and fiber from the fruits and vegetables themselves. Contrary to popular belief, there is soluble fiber in juice!”

In other words, the fructose present naturally in fruits and vegetables is not necessarily the same Big Bad sugar you’ve been hearing about. “Most of the fructose in junk foods/beverages is mislabeled,” Rafael says. “High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is actually about 50%:50% fructose and glucose, which is the same ratio you find in table sugar, glucose.”

Natural fructose, on the other hand, is a whole different animal. “Mother Nature is very conservative of energy and thus conservative of how much sugar she puts into fruits,” says Rafael. “She needs fruits to be sweet and appealing to animals so they will spread the seeds far and wide. But producing sugars is metabolically costly. So she has endowed fruits with natural constituents, such as citric acid, malic acid, and many other similar molecules, in order amplify the sweetness of the sugars in fruits.”

So what does this mean for the supposedly dangerous sugar content of juice? Basically, the sweetness of a juice takes less sugar to convey to our taste buds than the sweetness of a processed product, so a sweet, flavorful fruit juice probably doesn’t contain nearly as much fructose as you’d think.

“In general the sugar in cold-pressed juices isn’t a concern,” adds Dr. Marjorie Nolan Cohn, National Spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. “Added sugars from processed foods is more of a concern, and contributes to too much overall sugar.”

So to recap, fructose is not the enemy here, at least not as long as it comes from fresh produce. That being said, Robin notes that we would all do well to remember that fruit juices do contain sugar. “In the long run, a glass or two per day of sweet juice should replace other sugary foods, rather than add to them,” she says.

And what’s more, the fructose contained in juice can be one-upped… by whole fruits! According to Melanie Ordway, Registered Dietitian at Fordham University. “The difference between whole fruit and the juice is the fiber content.”

“Fiber helps slow the digestion process and prevents a rapid spike in blood sugar,” she explains. “When our blood sugar rises, insulin is secreted and this hormone is a fat-storing hormone. Juicing also lacks in protein and fat, which play a role in regulating blood sugar.”

Bottom Line: Fructose isn’t a problem as long as it’s fresh and natural; stay away from processed foods with fructose, and choose whole fruits over juices whenever possible.

Juice Cleanses and Detoxes

Another button topic when it comes to juicing is the idea of cleanses and detoxes.

“I think that many people have been turned off on juicing because they tried a ‘juice cleanse,'” Robin says. “Juice cleanses and fasting in general are not things to enter into lightly. Trying to live on juices while going to work and leading your busy lifestyle leaves you tired, cold, and hungry.”

And that’s not the only problem with juicing as a detox or cleanse. According to Dr. Todd Sinett, NYC-based chiropractor and author of the upcoming book, “3 Weeks to a Better Back” (October 2015), even if you know what you’re getting into, detoxing isn’t for everyone.

“The body has its own detox system in place so you may not need to do a detox,” he says. “When talking detox the main problem is actually what the person is usually eating or drinking. So I would recommend replacing un-healthy habits to healthy ones – essentially detox your system from your unhealthy choices.”

But beware: those unhealthy choices are not necessarily always the ones that first come to mind. “Eating and drinking the same foods can have a negative impact on the body because too much of a good thing is simply not a good thing,” he says. “For example, too much broccoli can cause gas and irritation, or too much salad can also cause bloating. Also when you are eating too much of one thing you are also depriving your body of other vitamins, minerals, etc. that you need from other foods.”

All things in moderation, then — including juicing. “Too much acidity can be a problem and represents an unbalanced diet. When one has foods or drinks that contain too much acidity it can impact the upper GI tract and irritate the throat. Examples of too much acid are apple cider vinegar or citrus (which are frequent components of a detox system).”

So how can you complete a detox or juice cleanse healthfully? There is a way according to Madeline Given, CNC, a certified holistic nutritionist. “While everyone’s bodies are unique and can require vastly different nutrients and ratios of nutrients to feel their best, juicing can be tweaked to fit most generally healthy people’s lifestyles,” she says. “For example, the average bottle of cold-pressed green juice may contain anywhere from 5-20% of your Daily Value for sugar, while it also includes 40% of your Daily Value for vitamin C and vitamin A! Bottom line: juicing is not a sustainable lifestyle, but it contains seasonal value to boost your detoxification efforts.”

Robin agrees with this temporary detox or cleanse idea. “For most people, I prefer a “re-set” juicing practice,” she says. “After a period of over eating, replacing a meal or two per day with a vegetable based juice, then having a raw meal that is mostly vegetables can help get you back on track.”

Bottom Line: A long-term juice cleanse is not sustainable and can be more harmful than helpful, but using juice as a way to counterbalance a heavy meal or get you back on track is a good idea — just drink in moderation!

How (and When!) to Juice Healthfully

So juicing isn’t all bad, and can even be really good in some cases. But when and how?

The first thing is to choose your juicer wisely.

“The trend in juicing is to use the juice, not the whole food,” explains Christina Major, The Health Recovery Expert of CrystalHolisticHealth.com. “That’s why sugars are high and people are not experiencing the health benefits.”

She recommends choosing a juicer that retains the pulp, filled with good fiber, as well as cold-press juicers that do not destroy vitamins and phytonutrients.

The other concern is what to juice — juicing your fruit bowl isn’t going to cut it.

“Learn to love green juices, and other less sweet options,” Robin says. “When you first start making juices from leafy greens, you want to balance the taste with sweet fruits, like apples and oranges. Once you experience the energizing, nourishing feeling of drinking green juice, you can cut back on the sweet elements and rely more on lemon and other low-sugar produce.”

Melanie, meanwhile, suggests in-season produce, which is not only more cost-effective but tastier, as well as “produce rich in color and variety (which) ensures a wide range of nutrients and antioxidants.”

As variety is key, you may do well to follow Danielle’s advice: “Consider juicing vegetables you don’t like very much or that you rarely prepare to increase variety in your diet,” she says. “I recommend working up to a 1:4 ratio of fruit to vegetables.”

As for the when, the answer is — “Not all the time!” We already addressed the juice cleanse and detox trend, and as we concluded, you shouldn’t be replacing meals with juice on a daily basis. But you also might want to consider whether juicing should be a daily habit or a once-in-a-while treat.

“In daily life, your juicing practice can be like taking a multivitamin,” says Robin, who suggests adding a glass or two of juice to your daily diet as a replacement for sweet desserts and processed foods.

Marissa Vicario, a Certified Integrative Health and Nutrition Coach and the Founder of Marissa’s Well-being and Health, agrees. “If you’re on the go and need a quick pick-me-up as a snack it’s definitely fine to grab a green veggie juice instead of coffee or something sweet.”

And Alina Zhukovskaya, a co-creator of of DLrevAmp, #1 Diet for 2015 as chosen by Harper’s Bazaar Magazine, highlights the bio-individuality of how much juice is appropriate, particularly with regards to sugar. “Sugar is fuel – that’s how our cells get energy,” she says. “However, everyone needs different levels of energy and people process sugar in different ways. For example, someone with diabetes would benefit from an all-veggie green juice that doesn’t have sugar as diabetics have challenges with sugar metabolism. However, if someone is an athlete and does a lot of cardio exercises, a fruit juice will fuel their bodies with energy and help them with their workouts.”

But don’t make juice your only fall-back for a quick, delicious sweet treat. Change up your juice régime with whole fruits and vegetables as snacks, or even smoothies, as Melanie suggests, which retain all of the fiber of the original fruit. She suggests using skim milk or yogurt to add protein to this sort of smoothie as well.

All-in-all, it’s generally best to try to eat your fruits and veggies before drinking them according to our experts. Of course, there are a few exceptions. “If someone medically requires a low-fiber diet, than juicing may be the preferable way to ensure adequate vitamin and mineral intake from food; however, sound scientific research is limited at this time,” Melanie says.

Above all, when you do choose to consume juice, make sure it’s as fresh as possible to reap all of the benefits. According to Rafael, freshness is key to ensuring that the fructose you get is the good, natural kind. “In freshly juiced, non-processed, non-pasteurized fruit and vegetable juices the fructose remains associated with pectins and other forms of fibers, proteins, cutins and many other natural and healthful fruit constituents,” he says. “This is a contributing factor that makes freshly juiced juices cloudy. Simply allowing a juiced juice to sit for a few days results in the liberation of free sugars, which have a higher glycemic index and are not as healthy as the associated/bound fructose found in fresh juice.”

As for how to make your juice, it’s just a bit of simple math according to Lisa. “Just memorize the ​1:4 ​ratio – every ​single ​serving of fruit or sweet, starchy vegetables (like beets and carrots)​ should be balanced with a minimum of four servings of leafy or cruciferous vegetables,” she says. “Since fructose ​has a blackout effect on the body’s appetite signal system, the mind doesn’t register that​ ​it’s full ​so an overload of fructose can lead to overeating and weight gain​. ​But if you stick to that 1 fruit:4 vegetable ratio, ​there is no danger of overdosing on fructose.”

Bottom Line: Juice makes a great quick snack on the go or before a workout, and it’s a great added source of vitamins and minerals, but make sure you’re making it fresh yourself and drinking it right away, and — like everything — consume in moderation!

Can Kids Get in on the Juice Trend?

One of the most frequent concerns we hear about with regards to juice is its effect on kids: after all, kids love sweet drinks, and juices are healthier than soda… right?

Depends on who you ask.

“There was a big awareness campaign about kids and juice boxes, because millions of children were being given these little boxes of very sweet, no-fiber, pasteurized juice to suck through a straw all day long,” Robin says. “This was causing tooth decay, and really not adding much nutrition to the diet other than some vitamin C.”

But those little juice boxes and freshly pressed juice are two completely different animals, as we’ve seen. So can kids benefit from fresh, cold-pressed juices, just like adults?

Our experts say yes! But Lisa notes that “parents should follow AAP (American Academy of Pediatric) guidelines which advises children ages 1 to 6 should drink no more than 4 to 6 ounces of juice per day and children ages 7 to 18 should drink no more than 8 to 12 ounces of juice each day.”

Robin even notes that juices can be used to add veggies and fruits that kids aren’t keen on consuming whole to their diets, as an added bonus. But Melanie notes the importance of finding other clever ways to add fruits and veggies to kids’ diets as well. “There are other creative ways besides juicing to add fruits and vegetables to their diet. Examples would be cutting fruit into different shapes, adding into non-traditional items (apples or bananas in pancakes, berries on top of oatmeal, carrots or squash puree in macaroni & cheese, etc.).” These ways add more all-important fiber to their meals.

Bottom Line: Kids can drink the same homemade, cold-pressed juice you do — just make sure they’re eating their five-a-day, not drinking it!

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Juice image via Shutterstock: zstock

Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.