With so much attention on sugar these days, it’s easy to get caught up in the sugar-free craze. In a country where the average person consumes 42 teaspoons of added sugar per day, there is little question that many of us could benefit from cutting back on sugar. (Those teaspoons add up to 150 pounds per year!) However, it’s not as simple as avoiding all foods that contain any sugar. There’s a difference between added sugar and the kind that occurs naturally in certain foods, like fruit.
What’s the problem with sugar, anyway? Sugar has become the latest scapegoat for many health problems including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, based on research associating diets high in added sugar (also referred to as refined sugar) with increased risk of these diseases. Refined sugar is linked to chronic inflammation — in simple terms, the body’s normal immune response to injury (from too much sugar) — which can lead to a variety of metabolic problems. This is why the American Heart Association recommends limiting daily intake of added sugars to 6 teaspoons (24 grams) for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men. Sugary beverages and sweet foods contribute to our overconsumption of added sugars, but sugar is found in many foods that don’t even taste that sweet, such as tomato sauces, marinades, salad dressings, crackers, and breads. And it doesn’t matter if that added sugar is coming from a less-processed source (like honey or maple syrup) or if it’s white table sugar – our bodies cannot distinguish where it’s coming from. In other words, to our bodies sugar is sugar, no matter what the source.
Fruit also contains essential vitamins and minerals as well as beneficial phytonutrients…A healthy person should not worry about the amount of sugar found in different fruits or avoid higher-sugar fruits.
What complicates the discussion is that fructose has been called out as a major offender when it comes to sugar-related health problems, and many people leap to the conclusion that we should avoid fruit since it’s primarily fructose. However, all sugar, whether it’s white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or the sugar found in fruits and vegetables, is made up of both fructose and glucose. Without getting too scientific here (yawn!), just know that the ratio of the two molecules may vary slightly from one form of sugar to another, but the difference in ratios doesn’t appear to matter significantly. In addition, the amount of sugar (and fructose) consumed from eating a piece of fruit is far less than drinking a sugary beverage or eating a piece of cake. For example, 1 cup of grapes (one of the higher-sugar fruits) only contains 15 grams of sugar, whereas a 12-ounce can of soda contains around 36 grams of sugar. More importantly, whole fruit comes packed with other beneficial nutrients including fiber, which slows down the rate at which the sugar is metabolized, so it doesn’t lead to the problems that added sugar can. Interestingly, a recent study found that fruit may actually lower your risk for diabetes.
Fruit also contains essential vitamins and minerals as well as beneficial phytonutrients. Even higher-sugar fruits offer all of these nutrients, along with the beneficial carbohydrates our bodies need for energy, brain function, and other important bodily functions. A healthy person should not worry about the amount of sugar found in different fruits or avoid higher-sugar fruits. The one caveat is that someone with diabetes who needs to pay attention to the amount of sugar (or carbohydrates) consumed at each meal should know the amount of sugar in fruit and plan meals accordingly. Another thing to keep in mind: 100 percent fruit juice offers nutrients but lacks the fiber to slow digestion, so the body digests it similarly to other sugary beverages.
To limit your sugar intake, learn all the names for sugar (hello, “nectar” and “evaporated cane juice”!) and read package labels. Unless you have a health condition that requires counting carbohydrates, don’t worry about the sugar in fruit — all the other beneficial nutrients and fiber outweigh any concern for the sugar contained in fruit provides. In fact, enjoying fruit for dessert is one way to kick that sugar habit for good!
At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to [email protected].