In 2017, U.S consumers consumed the lowest amount of fruit juice per capita — 5.2 gallons — since the U.S. Department of Agriculture started tracking the number in 1970, Bloomberg reported. Most of it was orange juice at nearly 2.5 gallons per person, followed by apple juice at about 1.8 gallons per person. All other other fruit juices made up the remainder.
This shift is due to rising concerns about the sugar content of fruit juice and its links to health problems such as obesity and heart disease, the business news agency said. At the same time, the Florida orange juice industry is taking a hit from hurricane damage and citrus greening disease, Bloomberg added.
The USDA reported fresh fruit availability rose to more than 135 pounds per capita in 2017, the highest level since 1970. Bananas topped the list at close to 29 pounds produced per person, followed by melons with about 22 pounds and apples at slightly more than 17 pounds. Oranges trailed at almost 9 pounds per person, according to the department.
This shift in fruit consumption from juice to the raw product would seem to indicate U.S. consumers are listening to the message that sugar intake isn't all that healthy. The result has been a drop in sugar consumption, whether it's in the form of fruit juice or other sweet foods and beverages.
Studies have concluded fruit juices and other sugary drinks can be harmful to health. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children younger than 1 not be given fruit juice because of its high sugar content. Also, recent Consumer Reports tests showed elevated levels of heavy metals in 21 of 45 different juices tested.
Fruit and fruit juices are naturally sweet since they contain fructose, or fruit sugar, which is sweeter than table sugar. While fruit juice has vitamins and phytonutrients that sugar-sweetened beverages do not, sugar and water are the main ingredients in both, and the biochemical response when they are metabolized is the same. Consequently, studies linking fruit juice and sugar-sweetened drinks to health problems worry consumers — and pose problems for the juice industry.
This begs the question of why consumers view raw fruits as a healthy option, but not juices made from them. One factor could be convenience since raw fruits such as strawberries, pineapples, grapes and avocados are now available year-round. Another may be that they contain fiber and phytonutrients, which studies show convey a number of wellness benefits. Citrus fiber products made from orange pulp and peel are being sold to baked goods manufacturers as a way of adding dietary fiber and a cleaner label.
While this scenario benefits fruit producers and importers, it probably isn't doing much for juice processors unless they introduce innovations containing less or no sugar. Honest Tea was an early mover in 2007 with its line of Honest Kids organic juice beverages with fewer calories. Juicy Waters' boxed lineup from Juicy Juice is using filtered water and some flavoring, but no sugar or other sweeteners. Apple & Eve's Cool Waters have only three to four grams of sugar and 15-20 calories per box.
It's difficult to tell whether consumers will continue to turn away from juice and toward raw fruit. It may just be a fad stemming from sugar concerns that could fade once people become aware that many raw fruits contain plenty of sugar. According to Healthline, three to four cups of watermelon has nearly as much of the sweetener as a can of sugary soda.
The juice industry, particularly orange juice, has had a rough time lately. It's probably going to take effort to get back in customers' good dietary graces — if that happens at all. One route is to debut healthier products like some makers of kids' juices. Another is to find ways to decrease sugar content of their products.
Yet another is to tout the "natural" qualities of some juice products, particularly in comparison with soda, sports and energy drinks. While the term has no officially regulated definition, it could draw consumers who check packaging claims and may help boost sales in this flagging segment.