Can Soft Drinks Ever be Healthy?

Soft drinks have recently borne the brunt of significant negative press, reports Birmingham City University’s Mel Wakeman, senior lecturer in nutrition and applied physiology. Consumers have been bombarded with messages regarding the amount of sugar in drinks, particularly fruit juice, and, as a result, they are more aware that consumption should be moderated.

Knowing what we ought to do is entirely different to actually doing it! Both adults and children exceed the current recommendations for the amount of added sugar in their diet. The latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey reported that children and teenagers consume approximately 40% more added sugar than their recommended daily allowance. Excess sugar in the diet is associated with tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, weight gain and obesity, so it is important to support the consumer and help them to reduce their sugar intake for the benefit of their health. Fruit juice and soft drinks are recognised as being the main culprits.

Sugar Intake Recommendations?

The World Health Organisation recommends that we limit our sugar intake to 10% of our total calorie intake per day; that’s around 50g per day for an adult. Now, however, there is a real push to lower this target to just 5% of our calorie intake. At 25g/day, that’s equivalent to just five teaspoons in total for an adult and 2.5 teaspoons for a child. Soft drinks and fruit juice will remain a barrier for anyone trying to meet this new target.

Bad for Our Health

Drinks containing sugar often increase the risk of dental decay, particularly if consumed between meals. The frequent consumption of soft drinks (especially if sipped from a bottle) — either sugared or sugar-free — has also been linked to the erosion of tooth enamel by the acids present in the added fruit extracts or those added to make the drink fizzy. If consumed at meal times, it is more likely that the sugars will become diluted, having a lower impact on the teeth and blood sugar levels.

One hundred per cent fruit juice drinks contain natural sugar. Surely this is OK? In terms of calorie content, all sugars are the same and drinking too much can cause weight gain. It is one of the reasons we are advised to limit our intake of fruit juice to just one glass (150mL) a day. At ‘just’ 100 calories in a glass of this size, there are still three teaspoons of sugar! Then, when you read the back of the carton, you see the suggested serving size is 250mL. A ‘recommended’ serving of fruit juice could mean the consumer is imbibing around five teaspoons of sugar!

To put it another way, roughly four oranges are required to make 250mL of fresh juice. We would not routinely eat four oranges in one go or put five teaspoons of sugar in a cup of tea, so we should not consume the juice from four oranges either.

Parents will often turn to fruit juice as a way of getting at least some fruit into their child (most are receiving less than three portions of the recommended five portions of fruit or vegetables a day). Many will go to the expense of buying fresh juice drinks or smoothies as they contain pure fruit; they must be nutritious and healthy right? Only by interpreting the nutrition label on such products will you find that a 250mL ‘Innocent’ smoothie contains more than 34g of sugar! I assume most parents wouldn’t dream of giving their child two doughnuts, which has the equivalent amount of sugar.

You also might think that the sugar in fruit juice is a better sort of sugar than that added to other soft drinks. Fruit contains fructose, which is entirely natural. Yet, it doesn’t actually matter whether the sugars you drink come from fruit juice, smoothies or fizzy drinks; sugar is sugar, irrespective of the source. Your body doesn’t know the difference, and more evidence is emerging about the potentially harmful effects of excessive fructose consumption. Therefore, we need to cut down all sugar, including fructose and the sugary drinks we consume.

What are the Benefits of Fruit and Juice?

It’s not all bad. Both whole fruit and 100% fruit juice are rich sources of valuable vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C. This is why one serving of fruit juice will count towards one of our five recommended daily portions of fruit (and vegetables) a day and, no doubt, the packaging will remind us of this fact. It can never be more than this, however, no matter how much we have. The processing that takes place to make fruit juice (squeezing, pulping, extracting, etc.) removes the fibre (and other nutrients), so you just don’t get the same benefits we get from eating the whole fruit. Cloudy drinks or those with ‘bits’ in are generally better for you as they retain some fruit pulp and will give you a little fibre: this is why smoothies can provide up to two of your five-a-day.

Eating the whole fruit is so much better and a fruit drink will always find it hard to compete with ‘the real thing.’ The sugars found naturally in whole fruit are less likely to cause tooth decay because the sugar is contained within the structure of the fruit; that is, the fibre. This fibre slows down the digestion of the fruit, which slows the release of these sugars into the bloodstream. This has additional benefits in terms of helping to stabilise blood sugar levels that, in turn, may result in better appetite control. Fibre itself can help to control snacking behaviour as it helps you to feel full. It also helps to improve gut health in terms of reducing the risk of constipation and supporting the beneficial microbiota in the bowel; these provide numerous health benefits including helping to lower cholesterol levels and regulate blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Also present in fruit are polyphenols. Found in all fruit (and vegetables), but probably most notably in green tea, black tea, red wine and extra virgin olive oil, many have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help cells in the body to ward off damage from harmful oxygen molecules called free radicals. Free radicals appear to play a role in ageing and illnesses such as heart disease and various types of cancer.

Advances in Soft Drinks

PepsiCo Inc., the company that makes Tropicana, is seeking to patent a method of adding fibre and polyphenols into juice drinks and other beverages in a bid to improve their nutritional profile. This may well make fruit juice a better mimic of whole fruit in terms of providing more of the normally present natural nutrients that are removed during processing: but is it enough? The UK population as a whole is not consuming enough fibre. Current guidelines state we should eat 18g/day; but, adults are only reaching about 14g/day.

Adding fibre to drink products could be a useful way to top up our levels, but it’s still not going to change how the sugar damages teeth. The fibre may prevent blood sugar levels from surging up and down, may help with appetite control and weight management, but this product is still not changing the fact the public needs to cut down its sugar intake. Perhaps this is PepsiCo’s approach to competing with the launch of Coke Life. Seen as a ‘responsible’ product that is meeting the public demands for healthier drinks, PepsiCo’s patent could still be an interesting contender on the market.