The Science behind Orange Juice

A recent article in The Atlantic, “Misunderstanding Orange Juice as a Health Drink,” got a number of things wrong. Adee Braun’s article neglects the science behind orange juice. The author cites Alissa Hamilton and her book, Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice. “The industry is trying to revive its healthy reputation against all odds,” Hamilton writes. “Not only is orange juice heavily processed, but it’s straight sugar which today people recognize as contributing to obesity and diabetes.”

While a majority of drinks widely sold in stores contain abnormal high levels of sugar, orange juice does not. Orange juice is full of other highly beneficial components and the sugar in orange juice is a combination of fructose, glucose and sucrose. Roughly half is sucrose, which is what is in table sugar. Roughly 25% is fructose and 25% is glucose. Sucrose breaks down into half glucose and half fructose. There is a significant difference between that and pure glucose. A scientific journal article, “Orange juice or fructose intake does not induce oxidative and inflammatory response,” suggests:

Caloric intake in the form of orange juice or fructose does not induce either oxidative or inflammatory stress…(For those who read further, reactive oxygen species (ROS) are various forms of oxygen that will react quickly. NF-kappaB is a primary pathway for inflammation in cells. The “P” value gives the statistical probability that this result is due to chance alone. A P value of 0.001 is a 1 in 1000 chance. That is very good.)

What that article says is that fructose and water do not induce oxidative stress the way glucose and water does. Unless glucose is added to orange juice, orange juice won’t either. Fructose sugar has a different structure.

In addition to the difference between glucose and fructose, the bioflavonoids in citrus have a host of positive effects.

A partial list of citrus bioflavonoids includes: narangin, hesperidin, poncirin, rhiofolen, nobiletin, 6-demethoxytangeretin, eriocitrin, and neodiomin, naringenin, isocriocirm, isonaringin, on and on. Rhiofolen had insulin mimetic activity; nobiletin stimulates neural growth and is a candidate for combating memory loss; poncirin is an antioxidant, etc. In other words, citrus bioflavonoids are a hot area of research.

A sample article on the benefits of one of the bioflavonoids, “Hesperidin associated with continuous and interval swimming improved biochemical and oxidative biomarkers in rats,” says:

Citrus flavonoids, such as hesperidin, have shown therapeutic properties that improve hyperglycemia and insulin resistance, and decrease blood serum lipids and inflammation. Hesperidin supplementation per se, or in combination with swimming exercise protocols, improved the biochemical profile and antioxidant biomarkers evidencing that the use of flavanones may enhance the health benefits promoted by exercise.

Another article on a bioflavonoid shows that, “Eriocitrin ameliorates diet-induced hepatic steatosis with activation of mitochondrial biogenesis.” What this means is that this bioflavonoid prevents fat buildup in the liver during a high-fat diet, and causes mitochondria (our oxygen burning fuel cells) to increase. Yet another bioflavonoid article, “Orange juice neutralizes the proinflammatory effect of a high-fat, high-carbohydrate meal and prevents endotoxin increase and Toll-like receptor expression,” says:

The combination of glucose or water and the HFHC [high fat, high carbohydrate] meal induced oxidative and inflammatory stress and an increase in TLR expression and plasma endotoxin concentrations. In contrast, orange juice intake with the HFHC meal prevented meal-induced oxidative and inflammatory stress, including the increase in endotoxin and TLR expression. These observations may help explain the mechanisms underlying postprandial oxidative stress and inflammation, pathogenesis of insulin resistance, and atherosclerosis.

The Atlantic’s article goes against a large body of science and is not supported by the evidence. People taking the author’s advice to treat orange juice (and by extension many other fruit juices) the same as an artificial glucose drink will be damaging their health. Inevitably, some of these people will die an early death if they stop consuming what has been compensating to some extent for other dietary choices.

It would be valid to criticize the orange juice industry for adulterating orange juice in ways that destroy its benefits. Adding glucose, or destroying the complex polyphenols (other species of polyphenols are in real virgin olive oil) in orange juice does degrade the benefits of orange juice. But the way to deal with that is to work out regulations that assay the orange juice product on the shelves for glucose and for the levels of various bioflavonoids it contains. Setting up a grading system that has several levels would be useful.

While The Atlantic by and large does superb reporting and analysis, on this issue they were not thorough.