When a mother came to Dr. Robert Lustig hoping he could help her obese 6-year-old, the Seattle doctor quickly discovered part of the problem — and it wasn’t ice cream or cookies.
As Lustig relates in his 2013 book “Fat Chance,” he told her, “I don’t care what your kid eats, tell me what he drinks.”
The mother said the child didn’t drink soda, but had a gallon of orange juice a day. He told her, in Spanish, “La frutta es bueno, el jugos es malo” (the fruit is good, the juice is bad).
“Eat the fruit, don’t drink the juice” has become something of a mantra for Lustig, a crusader against sugar, and his followers. And American families seem to be paying attention.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that Florida citrus growers are scrambling to find new crops because of dramatically lower sales coupled with the spread of a disease that has been decimating citrus trees for more than a decade.
In 2004, Americans consumed nearly 5 gallons of orange juice per person, a rate that fell to nearly half that in 2016, the Journal reported. Consequently, orange juice production in Florida has declined 70 percent, and farmers are considering growing olives, pomegranates and peaches.
Oranges ripen in a grove in Dec. 11, 2013, in Plant City, Fla. The citrus contributes $1.5 billion to the Florida economy, which is why growers are always on the watch for citrus greening, a condition that can kill orange trees. | Chris O'Meara, Associated Press
The tree-killing disease, called citrus greening, has caused orange juice prices to double in the past 18 months, which could also be part of reduced demand. It takes 5-6 medium-sized oranges to make 8 ounces of juice, and 95 percent of Florida's oranges are bought by juice producers, according to a report in The Ledger of Polk County, Florida.
Sales of grapefruit juice have also declined, but less so, suggesting some consumers may be shunning orange juice because of its sugar content. But while orange juice is sweeter, it also contains more vitamin C (124 milligrams) than grapefruit juice (94 milligrams) and three times the amount of folate.
Orange juice producers also protest that their product contains only natural sugar, not added sugar, which is the dietary demon du jour, and one reason the Food and Drug Administration is requiring new labels on foods by 2018.
So does orange juice belong on your table, or not? The U.S. government still says yes — with a caveat.
What the dietary guidelines say
A year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its dietary guidelines with a broad-ranging report that is to last for five years.
For those who consume a 2,000-calorie diet, the guidelines recommend 2 cups of fruit every day. One cup of orange juice counts as a cup of fruit, as long as it's 100 percent juice, with nothing added. But guidelines recommend just one cup a day of juice.
"Although fruit juice can be part of healthy eating patterns, it is lower than whole fruit in dietary fiber and when consumed in excess can contribute extra calories. Therefore, at least half of the recommended amount of fruits should come from whole fruits," the guidelines say.
Children should have even less. The American Academy of Pediatrics says young children consume no more than 4-6 ounces of juice every day, even if it's 100 percent juice. And older children and adolescents should consume no more than 12 ounces a day.
And watch out for the sneaky "juice beverages." The FDA has rules that keep manufacturers from calling a product 'fruit juice' if it's largely water, sugar and dye. But it does not police the pictures of fruit on a product label, nor require that the images be proportional to the actual fruit juice contained.
A "juice beverage" that shows raspberries and blueberries on its labels, therefore, may actually contain less than 2 percent raspberry or blueberry juice — or even startlingly less than that, as a lawsuit that played out last year revealed.
In it, Pom Wonderful sued The Coca-Cola Co. saying that a Coca-Cola product that advertised a "flavored blend of five juices" was misleading. In testimony, a Coca-Cola attorney pointed out that Pomegranate Peach Passion White Tea contains .0005 percent passionfruit juice. Pom lost.
In fact, many blended juice beverages contain mostly apple juice. (You can tell if it's the first ingredient listed on the label.) This is the subject of yet another lawsuit, this one by the Center for Science in the Public Interest over PepsiCo's Naked Juice label.
What to serve
Frustrated parents may at this point just decide to serve their children water because its importance to our health is rarely a point of dispute, although the amount that we need often is.
And if weight is an issue in your house, families should probably follow Lustig's advice to eat an orange, but skip the juice, but there are drinks that are far worse for your children.
Canadian obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff noted recently on his blog, Weighty Matters, that while nutrition experts are cheering the decline in soda and fruit juice consumption, other beverage categories are booming, including energy drinks, sports drinks, drinkable yogurt and flavored milk.
But he doesn't let juice off the hook, saying that in his work with overweight children and their parents, "I can tell you that it's not at all uncommon for kids to be consuming 300 or more calories of chocolate milk and juice a day" — despite "their parents' great intentions," Freedhoff wrote.
Chocolate milk is to milk "what apple pies are to apples," he said, and he called juice "a flat soda-pop alternative with a smattering of vitamins."
Florida citrus growers, understandably, disagree, noting that orange juice naturally provides vitamin C, potassium, folate, thiamine, magnesium and vitamin B6, and even offering a recipe for homemade vitamin C gummies, using gelatin and orange juice.
Vitamin C is always helpful, particularly with elevated rates of the flu persisting in the nation. But in more bad news for the orange juice industry, the Bangor Daily News reported that a glass of orange juice may actually hurt your immune system because its sugars can suppress its infection-fighting powers for five hours or more.
And even God may prefer oranges over juice, saying in Genesis, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food" — not beverages, it seems.
But the USDA, at least until 2020, says to go ahead and enjoy orange juice — just be careful how much you pour in the glass. Your grandparents' juice glasses were small for good reason, it seems.