January 13, 2014

Label Madness Monday: Liquid Shoogah!

The folks at my cubicle lemming hell non-nutrition day job who know I know a little something about food and health often bring products to me and ask for my opinion. The most frequent questions are, “Is this bad?” and, “Is this healthy?” Unfortunately, these questions do not lend themselves to simple yes or no answers. Of course, there are certain foods products that no one in their right mind should eat. And there are other foods that are almost universally accepted as “good for us.” But even there, there are always gray areas. This stuff is quite nuanced, and the more complex our food supply becomes, the more difficult it is to judge items at face value.

If you read my rant from a few weeks ago, then you know that treats and overt junkfood don’t bother me that much. As long as advertisers and food manufacturers are honest with us and aren’t trying to deceive us into thinking their junkfoods are nutritious, I have no problem with the occasional cupcake, candy bar, bag of chips, or whatever floats your boat. I do have a problem with the powers that be trying to convince us that sugar-coated grains doused with vegetable oil and preserved beyond all recognition are “health foods.”

One thing that coworkers often present me with for an on-the-spot judgment is fruit juice. After all, it’s fruit. It’s juice. It’s all-natural, fat-free, and chock-full of vitamins and minerals. It has to be good for us, right?


Today we’ll look at three versions of a product most definitely marketed as a health food. I’ll admit right here at the outset that there are some good things about these, and you could certainly do worse. That said, you could also do much, much better.

First up: The Naked® Mighty Mango® 100% fruit juice smoothie.

As you can see from the label, there is NO SUGAR ADDED. Well, thank goodness, because I’d say something with 72 grams of carbohydrate doesn’t really need any extra sugar, wouldn't you? 

Where do I get 72 grams from when the label says only 36? Well, look closely: one bottle of this smoothie contains two servings. So there are 72 total grams of carbohydrate in one bottle, with 60 of them from sugar—with zero fiber, zero fat, and just 1 measly gram of protein to blunt the blood glucose spike that is inevitable from chugging a bottle of this stuff. (More on this after we look at the next two items.)

I also take issue with them claiming that this contains vitamin A. It does not. What it contains is beta-carotene, which is not the same thing as vitamin A. Beta-carotene is a precursor nutrient found in plant foods (typically the orange/yellow ones, like mangoes, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, carrots, etc.). True vitamin A comes only from animal foods. We can convert beta-carotene into vitamin A, but some people’s bodies do this more successfully than others', and certain disease conditions can interfere with the process.

Second thing: not to worry, this juice smoothie is GLUTEN FREE. Again, thank goodness for small favors. The great folks behind Naked® managed to produce a fruit juice beverage without any wheat protein in it. It should go without saying that fruit juice is gluten-free, but that just goes to show how incestuous our food production lines have become that they have to specify that no gluten might be lurking in this bottle.

Next up: The Green Machine®. This one makes you feel healthier just looking at it. I mean, it’s green, for goodness sake. It has to be good! Everyone “knows” stuff like chlorella, spirulina, and wheat grass just scream alkalinity and health. Plus, we can see that this one also has NO SUGAR ADDED. 

But what else is in this nifty product? Let’s see. 

28 grams of sugar per serving, so 56 grams for one bottle. That’s pretty high for a drink—especially one that, thanks to the “NO SUGAR ADDED” blurb on the front of the bottle, could fool you into thinking it’s low in sugar. So we’re clear here, right? Just because something doesn’t have any extra sugar added doesn’t mean it’s not loaded with sugar. (Even natural sugar.)

Let’s dig a little deeper here. Here’s a snapshot of what you could consume to get the same amount of sugar as what’s in this bottle:

2¾ apples, ½ banana, kiwi, and mango. That’s a lot of fruit, no? Most people would probably call it quits after two apples, let alone an extra three-quarters of an apple, plus half a banana and one-third each of a kiwi and a mango. If you can imagine a scenario in which you would consume this much fruit in one sitting, then have at it. Go for the smoothie. But remember: if you ate the whole fruits, they would at least come with all the pulp and fiber which might fill you up a little more and possibly blunt the blood sugar spike just a tad. (Not much, but at least a little more than just plain juice.) The whole fruits would also require chewing, which would take a few seconds and maybe stand a chance of signaling to your GI tract that food is on the way, instead of just tossing this smoothie down the hatch and having this huge bolus of glucose and fructose presented all at once. (More on this in a minute.)

The last one: Protein Zone®.

Okay! At least here, we know we’ve got some protein along with whatever sugar might be in there. Let’s see how much sugar.

34 grams per serving, so 68 grams for the whole bottle. YOWZA! That is a lot of sugar for any beverage, let alone one whose claim to fame is that it’s high in protein. One bottle has 32 grams of protein (16g per serving, with 2 servings in the bottle), so there's over twice as much sugar as protein. For honesty in advertising, they should call this one "Sugar Zone." (I’m not even going to touch the fact that it’s soy protein isolate. You can figure out for yourself whether you want BEAN protein in your fruit juice. Personal plea to food manufacturers: STOP putting EFFING SOYBEANS in EFFING EVERYTHING.)

Let’s see how much whole fruit we could eat to get this amount of sugar:

1 banana—no big deal, and 87 grapes.  =O  That’s a lot of grapes! Again, I think most people could eat a banana, maybe add a handful of grapes if they were still hungry, and call it good. I don’t know too many people who would sit there after eating a banana and then proceed to consume 87 grapes. Just sayin’.  

Okay. So what’s the deal with all this sugar? Is this really that big a deal? It depends. Like I said at the beginning of this post, in nutrition, there are rarely black-and-white answers to the “is this good or bad” question. What does it depend on? Well, where are you metabolically and what are your goals? Are you a 22-year old CrossFitter or doing some other form of intense exercise and looking to replace muscle glycogen after a hardcore workout? Are you lean and insulin sensitive? Or are you overweight, sedentary, pre-diabetic, and inflamed? One of these categories of people can “get away with” this kind of smoothie better than the other. (Note: I’m not necessarily recommending this kind of drink for post-workout recovery, just pointing out that there might be a time and place where it’s more acceptable.)

Let’s remember: natural sugar is still sugar. Is eating a whole-food peach, pear, or apple better than mainlining 3 tablespoons of refined white sugar? Yes. But for someone struggling with health issues related to glucose and insulin dysregulation (of which diabetes is barely the tip of the iceberg…more on this in the future), even large amounts of real, whole fruit aren't advisable. A piece here and there? Sure. But not these liquid blood sugar bombs masquerading as health foods.

There are a couple more things to note here. The first is, these are NOT beverages to consume along with a meal. These practically are meals, in and of themselves. The lowest amount of calories in the three smoothies we’ve looked at here is 270 (for the green one). The mango has 290 and the protein smoothie has 480. For reasons I’ll address in a post some other time, I generally do not subscribe to calorie counting. I abhor doing math at the table. It’s demoralizing and largely unnecessary. That being said, I wouldn’t completely ignore calories, especially large amounts of calories coming from sugar un-buffered by fat or protein (except in the protein version). What I’m doing a bad job of saying here is, a smoothie with almost 300 calories is not something you want to consume as your beverage along with a meal.

Is there any way to “safely” consume these types of drinks? Yes, actually, I believe there are a few. The first is what I described above: if you’re a lean, fit athlete who’s just gone and depleted your glycogen stores, the best time to chug this is within 30-60 minutes of your workout. At that time, your body is best “metabolically primed” to handle that amount of carbohydrate. (Even better taken along with a good dose of protein, since the insulin spike will help get the glucose and the amino acids into your hungry, depleted muscle cells.)

The second way to enjoy these kinds of smoothies is slooooowly, over the course of several hours. A total of 60-70 grams of sugar isn’t the end of the world if they’re spread out over time. A sip here, a sip there…that’s fine. As a general rule, I advise my sedentary cubicle dwelling coworkers against these entirely, but for those who just “must” have them, I encourage them to take all day to drink them.

A third way to mitigate the blood sugar spiking effects of these products but still enjoy them now and then is to DILUTE THEM. These things are ├╝ber-sweet and usually fairly thick. You could add some water and still get that sweet tasting pick-me-up. You could go half water, half juice, or two-thirds water, one-third juice. If you happen to be addicted to these types of drinks, you could even start off with ¾ juice and ¼ water and slowly wean yourself down over time. Do this for a while and I guarantee you, when you try to drink it full-strength, you’ll practically gag…and your teeth might even hurt! (All this drinking slowly and diluting stuff doesn’t apply to the low-carbers among you, of course. You would want to avoid these drinks altogether.)

Okay now. These are fruit juice smoothies, Amy. Isn’t there anything good about them? Sure. They’re not all bad. They do come with some vitamins and minerals, especially potassium, which some of us have a hard time getting unless we eat a lot of veggies and fruit. All things considered, I’d rather see someone drink one of these than chug a soda. (Even though, believe it or not, the soda actually contains far less sugar! The soda would have only the sugar, and no vits & mins.)

One last thing before we’re done for the day:  You can see that all three of these bottles reveal that the contents have been “gently pasteurized.” That’s very interesting to me, because vitamin C is not heat stable. It can be lost to heating, so I’m not sure how much active vitamin C remains in these juices after they’ve been pasteurized. (You’ll notice that the ingredients on the Protein Zone list ascorbic acid – basically vitamin C. The fact that they’ve added in additional ascorbic acid tells me they know the C is reduced by pasteurization, but kudos to them [I guess] for replacing some of it, even if it’s likely with a synthetic version.) This is just something worth mentioning, especially because there are entire supermarket aisles filled with shelf-stable (read: pasteurized) fruit juices claiming to be high in vitamin C. Unless we know whether the manufacturers added in more vitamin C after pasteurization, those juices might not contain quite what we’re led to believe they do.

Bottom line: When you want fruit, EAT FRUIT. Whole, real, raw, non-pasteurized pieces of fruit. (And if sometime you happen to eat a banana and then 87 grapes, let me know!)

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.

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