You may have heard that sugar is bad for you, but is fruit sugar also unhealthy? We examine the available research on this hot topic in health and consult experts for their opinions.
To find out if restricting fruit to reduce your sugar intake is actually a good idea, read on as we examine the research on fruit sugar and offer advice from real nutrition experts.
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Types of Sugar in Food
Various forms of sugar are present in foods and beverages. Monosaccharides, which are made up of just one sugar molecule like glucose or fructose, and disaccharides, which have more intricate structures like sucrose and lactose, are two different types of sugar molecules.
A blend of sucrose, fructose, and glucose are the natural sugars found in fruit. As a result of widespread knowledge that sugar is bad, many people believe that fruits must also fall under this category.
But fructose isn’t harmful when it comes from fruit; it’s just bad in excess. It is very unlikely that eating whole fruits would result in consuming too much fructose.
It’s much easier to consume excess sugar from foods and drinks that contain “free sugars”.
These same sugars (fructose, glucose, and sucrose) are included in free sugars, but in this case they have been separated from their natural source (instead of being consumed as natural components of fruits, dairy products, some vegetables, and grains). Included in this is sugar that consumers, chefs, and food manufacturers add to food and beverages.
What Types of Sugar Are in Fruit?
The amount of glucose, fructose, and sucrose in most whole fruits varies; sucrose is later broken down by the body into equal amounts of glucose and fructose. Depending on the fruit, the exact percentages will vary; despite popular belief, fruit doesn’t always contain a high proportion of fructose.
2.9 g of glucose, 2.3 g of fructose, and 7.1 g of sucrose are found in a medium-sized peach, for instance. (For context, consider that table sugar is 100% sucrose, making it 50% glucose and 50% fructose, while the majority of high-fructose corn syrup is 45% glucose and 55% fructose.)
Because fructose and glucose are metabolized by the body differently, there are a few processes that take place when someone eats fruit. When insulin is secreted from the pancreas, the glucose is taken up into muscle, liver, and fat cells before being absorbed into the bloodstream (via the small intestine).
Consequently, blood glucose levels increase and then decrease as a result. While the fructose, on the other hand, is metabolized directly by the liver and has little impact on insulin and blood glucose, it can overburden the liver in large amounts (more than you would get from fruit) and have negative effects on metabolism.
is Fruit Sugar Bad for You?
Fruit sugar is not harmful to your health in moderation. “Barring any allergies or diagnosed intolerances, like fructose intolerance, there are zero negative health effects from eating fruit in the context of a healthy and varied diet,” says Nielsen. “In spite of all the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables that have been proven, such as bettering one’s mental health, improving digestion, and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, I am generally more concerned about the fact that people don’t consume enough fruit.”
But what does sensible fruit consumption entail? There are no hard-and-fast guidelines, but Nielsen advises healthy individuals to consume two to four servings of fruit daily, while Cording notes that her patients typically thrive on one to three servings. And it’s even better when you substitute fruit for a processed, sugary treat!
According to Nielsen, all fruits are healthy, whether they are temperate fruits like apples and berries or tropical fruits like mangos and bananas. It is true, however, that some individuals who have trouble controlling their blood sugar levels may need to be more careful about how they eat fruit. (Keep in mind that we did not say they had to stop eating fruit entirely.)
There are easy steps you can take to maintain a healthy blood sugar level if you have diabetes, are pregnant (which can increase your cell resistance to insulin and predispose you to gestational diabetes), notice that your anxiety worsens or you feel exhausted after eating fruit, or if any of these situations apply to you. “First, eat temperate fruits most often, like apples, pears, and berries, which tend to have a lower glycemic impact than tropical fruit,” advises Nielsen.
“Eating fruit after a balanced meal containing protein, fat, and fiber—or snacking on fruit paired with a protein and fat like almonds—may also help keep blood sugar in check. In order to promote greater balance, protein, fat, and fiber all work together to slow the rate at which nutrients and sugars are absorbed into the bloodstream.”
When whole fruits are processed into another form (e.g. dried fruit or fruit juice), this often concentrates their sugars and increases the rate at which they’re absorbed into the bloodstream—making you more likely to consume too much sugar and experience spikes and dips in blood sugar.
Eating fresh or frozen fruits whole, or blending them into smoothies, which, unlike juice, keeps their fiber-rich blood sugar-stabilizing qualities, are your best bets, are both healthier options.