Pulp Fiction

As a Floridian, I consider quality orange juice to be a major breakfast luxury. It’s a sweet indulgence that you can feel good about – ample research has suggested that people who drink 100% juice tend to have positive health outcomes. In fact, I was surprised to discover a study claiming that a big glass of orange juice consumed along with a high-fat/high-carbohydrate meal (come on, we’ve all been there…) actually neutralized the meal’s inflammatory impact. That’s some genuine antioxidant power!

But before we grab the juice carton, we have to address the classic OJ debate: pulp or no pulp? Is one choice more nutritious than the other? Are there health benefits to be gained from orange juice pulp, or are the two options relatively equal?

Let’s first dispel the common misconception: pulp is not a good source of fiber. Although pulp is comprised from the fibrous cell walls of the fruit’s vesicles (those are the little juicy pockets you can see within the orange segments), it’s simply a negligible amount in relation to the glass of juice. If you read labels, you’ll notice that even the highest-pulp juices have zero grams of fiber.

juicy vesicles

But surely, there must be something good hiding in those pulpy vesicles? As I began to research the subject, I found accounts that orange pulp does have a high concentration of flavonoids, a class of antioxidant phytonutrients associated with lower risk of chronic diseases. This seemed a good enough reason to join Team Pulp, but I had to dig deeper to see just what kind of impact this had on the juice.

In a recent study, researchers determined the flavonoid content of several commercial juices (including one enriched with extra pulp), and then followed up by measuring flavonoid levels in the blood and urine of people who consumed the juices. Surprisingly, they found that although the pulp-enriched juice did have higher flavonoid content, it also had significantly lower bioavailability of those flavonoids compared to lower-pulp juices. In other words, scientists found that the body is able to easily absorb flavonoids from the soluble fraction – the juice itself – and that the presence of excess pulp actually inhibited our ability to absorb the amount that we would be able to digest from lower-pulp juices. The commercial juice that yielded the highest absorption of flavonoids was the medium-pulp variety. Enough pulp to give some extra nutrients, but not so much to get in the way of your body’s enzymes!

This being said, it’s important to recognize that this experiment only focused on one group of compounds, and that there are other phytonutrients involved in our digestion and metabolism of orange juice. But personally, I’m convinced enough to start reaching for the “Some Pulp” carton. I find the conclusion pretty intuitive, as moderate amounts of pulp are closest to the juice’s natural/least-processed state – always a good sign!

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