The Dangerous Problem Of Hidden Fructose

A lot of the decisions we make on a daily basis are automated.

Instead of checking for directions to work every morning, we quickly settle into a routine route and use it for every commute. While we may try a new restaurant, odds are we'll still order a dish we've predetermined to be "safe." Some of these auto-decisions come from happenstance (the T-shirt that somehow wins the "Highlander"-like battle to be your favorite), and some because of outside factors (the auto-decision is, after all, the goal of any ad campaign), but they're all intended for one thing: to save us time.

One auto-decision like this -- for myself and many others -- is choosing to drink fruit juice instead of soda. It's a shortcut to keep from having to waste time on a decision, but also a way to steer clear from the unhealthy horrors of soda. However, it turns out fruit juice may actually be worse for us.

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Those are the findings from a new study by Keck Medicine of USC, which looked at the amount of fructose contained inside beverages of all types. They analyzed the drinks through a number of tests and developed a "sugar profile" for each. The results:

In [sugar sweetened beverages] made with HFCS, fructose constituted 60.6±2.7% of sugar content. In juices sweetened with HFCS, fructose accounted for 52.1±5.9% of sugar content, although in some juices made from 100% fruit, fructose concentration reached 65.35 g/L accounting for 67% of sugars.

That's a lot of numbers to digest, but what it boils down to is that while beverages that use the dreaded high fructose corn syrup generally contain more fructose than juice drinks, there are plenty of instances where that's not the case.

Naming names: While Mountain Dew has the most fructose with 72.3 grams per liter, Minute Maid 100% Apple Juice is number three overall with 65.8 grams per liter, above such "unhealthy" sodas as Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper. Ocean Spray 100% Cranberry Juice and Hawaiian Punch are also loaded with more fructose than some sodas. This is troubling in two ways.

First and foremost is because of how terrible fructose is for our bodies. To offer a bit of a refresher, fructose is a naturally-forming sweetener found in honey, flowers, berries, and plenty of root vegetables. It's cheap, easy to obtain, and because it's so sweet -- a study found it contains 1.73 times the sweetness of second-place sucrose -- it's become the go-to method by commercial beverage producers to sweeten their products. Which is great for their sales because our taste buds just love sweet things.

Unfortunately, our bodies don't.

As this 2007 piece in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition points out, fructose is a relatively new addition to our diet:

Before the European encounter with the New World 500 years ago and the development of the worldwide sugar industry, fructose in the human diet was limited to a few items. For example, honey, dates, raisins, molasses, and figs have a content of >10% of this sugar, whereas a fructose content of 5-10% by weight is found in grapes, raw apples, apple juice, persimmons, and blueberries.

And, as Dr. Robert Johnson details in his book "The Sugar Fix," the addition of these massive amounts of fructose to our diets -- 73 grams per person per day now, as opposed to 15 grams per person per day a century ago -- has theoretically terrible effects. Among them:

- Increased levels of uric acid, leading to gout and elevated blood pressure;
- Insulin resistance, leading to obesity and type II diabetes;
- Fatty deposits in the liver which ultimately can lead to fatty liver disease;
- Developing dangerous fat around organs which causes, among other things, heart disease.

And so on and so forth. The point is, consuming high amounts of fructose is not good. And -- here's the second problem illuminated by the study -- we don't know we're consuming it.

There's currently no place on the label that states how much fructose is in a product. And this is an issue because all sugars, just as calories, are not created equally:

"Given that Americans drink 45 gallons of soda a year, it's important for us to have a more accurate understanding of what we're actually drinking, including specific label information on the types of sugars," said Goran.

Accurate labeling is always a worthy consideration, as I've touted in this space over and over again. But this isn't a problem that's going to be solved with better labeling. Instead, the main takeaway from the study is simply for the consumer to be aware that fruit juices are not necessarily the "healthy option."

So, next time you have to choose between soda and fruit juice, do yourself a favor and set your auto-decision to water instead.

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