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Navigating the juice aisle

Trying to find the best juice for your child? Begin by reading the label _ not the glitzy one on the front, but the facts on the back. Not all juice and juice products are the same nutritionally.

The good old days when drinking a cup of juice didn't require a professional nutritionist to sort out the real thing from impostors are gone.

With the variety of drinks available, you may wonder if products labeled "100 percent natural fruit juice" are nutritionally different from other types of juice beverages. The answer is that there are two sides to the story.

Keep in mind that, in its most basic form, fruit juice is water and sugar. And sugar is sugar, regardless of its source. The body processes all sugar the same, regardless if it comes from fruit, fruit concentrate, high fructose corn syrup (a common added sweetener) or sucrose (table sugar). Additionally, as nutrition facts labels show, the difference in percent juice does not always significantly affect the actual sugar content of the beverage. Both are great sources of carbohydrate energy (in the form of simple sugars).

But not all juice drinks are created equal. Don't assume one brand of juice is just like another, no matter how similar they seem. Fruits vary in their nutritional contents, and fortification practices vary from company to company.

Never judge a juice solely by its cover because the front of the product rarely tells the whole story. Turn the package around and read the ingredient list and "Nutrition Facts" panel, which all packaged foods are now required to display by law. Some "100 percent juice" products contain fewer nutrients than juice drinks with less than 100 percent juice, while other 100 percent juices contain more than the daily requirement for certain nutrients, such as vitamin C.

For example, unfortified 100 percent apple juice may contain only 2 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C, while many fortified juice drinks contain 100 percent of the daily allowance in just one serving.

Another juice caveat: watch for purported "real fruit beverage" drinks such as Fruitopia. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, this "fruit integration" of tangerines, strawberries and kiwis is only 5 to 10 percent fruit juice (that translates to only two to four tablespoons of fruit juice per bottle!).

Considering that natural sugars from fruit juices are not nutritionally superior to added sugar in juice drinks, look for juices with the least amount of sugar and 100 percent of the recommended daily amount for vitamin C per serving.

Sheila Dean, a registered dietitian and freelance writer, consults for internists, pediatricians and sports facilities in north Pinellas County. She teaches at St. Petersburg Junior College and just finished her first book, Nutrition in a Nutshell. E-mail may be sent to her at SDeanRDaol.com.

Some juicy tidbits

This mini-glossary will give you a quick splash of juicy information:

JUICE: The term "juice" can be used for any beverage that contains any amount of fruit juice. Products that contain less than 100 percent juice are typically called juice beverages, juice drinks, juice cocktails or fruit "ades" (i.e. lemonade) to distinguish them from 100 percent juice products.

NATURALLY SWEETENED: The FDA does not have a regulation regarding this term. But many manufacturers use it when they sweeten with a fruit juice rather than with sugar.

100 PERCENT PURE FRUIT JUICE: Has no added ingredients other than water, which is added to reconstitute concentrated fruit juice. Although it may not have added vitamin C as other juice drinks do, it does have other naturally occurring nutrients such as folic acid, which are often lacking in juice beverages.

FULL-STRENGTH JUICE, SINGLE-STRENGTH JUICE OR RECONSTITUTED JUICE: These are all considered full-strength juice. Reconstituting is adding water back to concentrated fruit juice to restore full liquid form.

JUICE BEVERAGE: A drink that is mainly fruit juice but may have some water, added sugar or coloring. Juice beverages are often fortified with up to 100 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C (60 mg).

JUICE DRINK: A beverage that is mainly water, sugar and a little juice for flavoring. Products labeled as "ade," or "juice cocktail drink" are in this category.

FRUIT-FLAVORED DRINKS: Beverages that resemble a fruit or vegetable juice in color and/or flavor and which contain some of the natural juice. They are less than 100 percent juice and should clearly labeled as such. This federal regulation applies to all diluted fruit or vegetable juice beverages in interstate commerce. Development of the flavoring and coloring industry has made possible a wide range of processed beverages that are classified as soft drinks, whether carbonated or not.

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