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How healthy is your health drink?

more-lifestyle Updated: Oct 14, 2016 21:46 IST
Soma Das
Soma Das
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Cold-pressed juices, flavoured water and relaxing drinks are flooding supermarket shelves. But are they all good for you?

Bandra-based songwriter Heena J (29) got herself a 90-day subscription to a cold-pressed juice brand. She now has a bottle home-delivered every morning (the brand in question doesn’t retail). “I love fruits, but I don’t get the time to stock, cut and eat them. Juices are a good solution,” she says. Heena belongs to the tribe of the urban, health-conscious professional with little time on their hands, but the inclination to eat healthy.

Read: What’s driving us to order fresh and organic produce?

Not so long ago, juices were made fresh at home — you’d squeeze it, or chuck it in a blender. Simple. Or, you’d get it from the juice-seller down the road. Juice was just juice. And the only choices you had were: no added sugar, or no ice, please.

But the game has changed. Even the roadside seller offers a hip “ABC juice”: amla + beetroot + carrot. And navigating packaged beverage in earnest requires a minor chemistry diploma.

Attractively packaged vitamin-flavoured water, and relaxing drinks are the latest entrants. Good old juices are now cold-pressed, sparkling, or organic.

Priced anywhere between Rs 50 to Rs 150 per unit, they are not exactly cheap. So, what you’re paying for are the good-for-health keywords. Many claim to be low-sugar and preservative-free. Sounds better than much-maligned colas?

But even this category calls for discernment (we’ll get to that).

Healthy demand, not always healthy supply

According to consulting firm Technopak, the packaged juices market is worth Rs 1,100 crore, and one of the fastest growing categories in the beverages segment, having grown 25 to 30% over the past decade.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal (in 2015) to MNCs to add juices to drinks and help farmers increase sales also boosted interest. The flip side: in June, food safety regulator FSSAI proposed relaxing norms for carbonated drinks with fruit juices. So, the actual fruit content can be as little as 5 to 10%.

Experts say fresh juices are better than packaged ones (HT file photo; representative image)

Read between the lines

So how do you make sense of this murky kingdom of juices? The old, simple advice largely holds true: fresh fruits are better than juices. And fresh juices are better than packaged ones.

“Food labelling in India is at a nascent stage (made mandatory by FSSAI in 2008, but being enforced recently). Most companies are putting labels out of compulsion,” says Manisha Parelkar, associate professor — food science and nutrition, SPN Doshi Women’s College, Ghatkopar. Parelkar has been studying labels and conducting surveys on nutrition. Her advice: “Illustrations don’t reflect health value. In fact, the nutritional table (at the back) can be misleading too.” (See box)

Despite claims of low- or no-sugar, most beverages have approximately 11g of sugar (100ml), which is high. “The maximum sugar intake per day (for adults) was 25gm (6tsp), but was revised by American Journal of Clinical Nutrition to 16gm (4tsp), from all sources: vegetable, fruits or juice,” says nutritionist Anjali Peswani.

“Fruits have complex sugar that release slowly, so high sugar content (in packaged juices) is surprising,” says nutritionist Dr Ratnaraje Krishna Thar, who has been researching on nutrition and dietetics.

A flavoured water label mentions use of the artificial sweetener aspartame, which experts agree, is worse than sugar. “Research shows that sweeteners are foreign products, and the body takes longer to process them,” says Peswani.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Cold facts

Among the juices on offer, cold-pressed has come to be the most popular new category. Juices are squeezed using a hydraulic cylinder that apparently don’t generate heat and allow little exposure to oxygen. This is different from regular juicers that slice the fruit, generating heat. Heat and oxidation are believed to damage nutrients in fruits. However, while this is the theory on which cold-pressed juices are sold, there is little ground research to back the claim.

Parelkar even cautions that the sugar content of cold-pressed juices could actually be higher: “The technique involved in cold-pressing juices could release acellular sugar (sugar cells get separated from cells of the fruit) which have a greater proportion of fructose.”

Organic juices are a safe bet, say nutritionists, if the source can be verified, and the sugar content is low. Carbonated or sparkling juices, however, are best avoided, because they cause the same harm as cola, says Peswani.

And how does your homemade nimbu pani/juice compare to these fancy beverages? “It balances electrolytes and performs pretty much the same function,” says Peswani. She says you could be making your own flavoured water at home (soak fruits overnight in water, consume the next day).

A lot more can be done by beverage brands as well. Parelkar cites global trends where nutritional labels are mentioned upfront and products are arranged by colour (denoting high to low sugar content): “You can scan labels at a go, based on the indicators.”

While the variety of beverages in the market might seem overwhelming, the labels might be your key to making the best decision.