Dietitian Melissa Meier settles the age old ‘orange juice vs Diet Coke: which is healthier?’ debate, in light of the latest Australian Health Star rating ruckus.
You’ve probably seen the sensational media headlines in the last few days telling you to ditch the humble OJ and opt for a Diet Coke instead – and if you’re confused by it, I don’t blame you. So, I thought I’d throw in my own two cents to try and help you make sense of the whole conundrum.
The cause of this ruckus is the impending changes to the algorithm the government’s Health Star rating system is based on. The changes will see 100 per cent fruit juice dethroned from its five star status to just three and a half stars, or less. To give you some context, that’s the same score given to Diet Coke.
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What is the Health Star rating system?
Before we dive in, let’s rewind a couple of steps. In case you’re not aware, the Health Star rating system is a voluntary system that gives an overall rating of a food product based on its nutrition profile. Note the word voluntary: companies can pick and choose if and what they use it on (as well as what they leave it off).
Products score points for beneficial nutrients like fibre and protein, and lose points for not-so-good features like saturated fat and sodium. The idea of the Health Star rating is that you use it to compare similar packaged products. So, a five star cereal is healthier than a three star one, but a five star cereal isn’t necessarily better for you than a three star yoghurt. Get the idea?
Is Diet Coke really better for you than orange juice?
The crux of the Diet Coke vs OJ Health Star rating issue is the amount of sugar each of these products contain. While Diet Coke contains no sugar, some juices – especially if they’ve been sweetened – contain stacks of it. Under the proposed changes to the algorithm, this sugar means the Health Star Rating of juice drops significantly.
Now, let’s get one thing straight: on no planet in my solar system is Diet Coke better for you than fruit juice. That’s especially true if it’s freshly squeezed 100 per cent fruit juice. But – and there is a big ‘but’ – that doesn’t automatically mean fruit juice is the best thing for you to drink.
Sure, fruit juice contains some vitamins and minerals, but it’s lacking in the all-important fibre that a whole piece of fruit contains. This fibre not only plays a key role in a happy digestive system, but it also keeps you feeling full – so a fresh orange for afternoon tea is far more likely to keep you away from the office vending machine than a glass of orange juice would.
Another issue with fruit juice is the amount of kilojoules it contains. As a rough guide, your average piece of fresh fruit provides about 100 calories. It often takes several pieces of fruit to yield a whole glass of juice, which means you’re in for a pretty hefty chunk of liquid kilojoules if you opt for juice.
And now for the elephant in the room: the sugar. Yes, whole fruit contains sugar, but it’s natural sugar and so is usually no cause for concern because it’s bundled up with gut-loving fibre, disease-fighting antioxidants and important vitamins and minerals. Fruit juice, on the other hand, is lacking in some of this nutrition and, at the same time, has a far greater concentration of sugar. If you’ve opted for a sweetened variety, that’s even worse, because you’re not only getting a stack of natural sugar, but added sugar, too – and that’s bad news for your teeth.
The Diet Coke vs OJ verdict
The dietary guidelines state that half a glass of juice can count as one of your two daily serves of fruit every now and then – and that’s the stance I’m taking, too.
Yes, a piece of fresh fruit and a glass of water is the gold standard, but a little bit of juice every now and then isn’t going to hurt you. Heck, even I have OJ in my fridge from time to time. Rest assured, I’d much rather you have a small glass of freshly squeezed orange juice – which offers some nutritional value – over a nutritionally void diet Coke, any day.
Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based accredited practising dietitian. You can connect with her on Instagram @honest_nutrition.