In the age of the juice cleanse, an often-heard debate arises: Is fruit juice healthful or just as bad as soda?

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On Nutrition

Should you embrace fruit juice or avoid it like the plague? On the one hand, juicing is trendy, with juice cleanses in particular being a status symbol in some sectors. On the other hand, juice is often seen as sugary soda dressed up in a more nutritious package — especially among those who fear the natural sugar in even whole fruit.

You don’t need to drink juice, especially if you eat enough fruit, but enjoying it in moderation is fine. What if you don’t eat enough fruit? In that case, juice may fill in some nutritional gaps.

There’s no denying that eating adequate fruits and vegetables is good for health. Research has shown time and time again that fruits and vegetables are associated with a reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, and may be protective against certain types of cancers. Unfortunately, only 2 in 10 Americans over the age of 2 meet the daily recommendations for fruit, which ranges from 1 cup per day for toddlers to 2.5 cups for men. One way to make up those shortfalls is to include some 100 percent fruit juice.

In fact, research shows that drinking 100 percent fruit juice is associated with improved diet quality, especially in children ages 2-18, for whom juice can make a big difference in getting enough of key nutrients like vitamins A and C, potassium, folate and magnesium. For families with tight food budgets, juice can be a more affordable way to meet the recommended intake. It can also be a boon for picky eaters, as drinking fruits and veggies (in juices or smoothies) may be more enticing than eating them.

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Don’t forget about phytonutrients — compounds made by plants that often have antioxidant or anti-inflammatory health benefits. Research suggests that even half a cup of colorful Concord grape juice (think Welch’s purple grape juice) per day provides enough polyphenols (a type of phytonutrient) to reduce several risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including blood pressure.

While 100 percent fruit juice can help provide essential nutrients, it does have two downsides:

1. It’s lacking in fiber. We need fiber for good health, plus eating a fiber-rich piece of whole fruit will likely leave you more satisfied than drinking a glass of juice, because it takes longer to digest.

2. In excess, juice can provide more calories than you need. With fruit juice, you get all of the nutrition of whole fruit, but you also get all of the sugar and calories. With no fiber, and no chewing, this means you can easily drink two oranges’ or apples’ worth of juice, whereas you probably would not eat two oranges or apples in a sitting.

The 2015-2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans factor in both the upsides and downsides of juice, recommending that we get at least half of our fruit servings from whole fruits. If you need two cups of fruit, then one cup of juice would be your limit. When you choose juice, again, choose 100 percent juice without added sugars. Unfortunately, many juices are not 100 percent juice. They’re thinned or filtered, or they’re juice “cocktails” or blends that are full of added sugars. Read the list of ingredients on your juice — what you don’t want to see is water or any form of sweetener.

Love juice? Don’t eat much fruit? Get out those tiny juice glasses — skip the large tumblers — and pour yourself a glass with breakfast (or lunch, or dinner). Cheers!