Many of us have a sweet tooth, and it’s all too tempting to reach for a candy bar instead of an apple. We know that too much sugar is bad for our health, upping our chances of diabetes and heart disease and often hindering our weight-loss goals. So, while it’s important to cut back on refined sugar, we wanted to know about the sugar found in fruit. We asked experts to clear up the confusion about fruit sugar once and for all.
The Difference Between Fruit Sugar and Other Sugars
First things first: Not all sugar is created equal. According to Lauren Fleming, a registered dietitian at Savoured RD Wellness, there’s natural sugar in many foods we eat, including fruits, dairy products, grains, and vegetables. These foods have sugar in them no matter what—even if sugar hasn’t been added to them.
So, what’s the difference between fruit sugar and other sugars? “Refined, or processed, sugars come under many names, including white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, coconut sugar, palm sugar, invert sugar, high-fructose corn syrup—the list goes on!” Fleming says. “These sugars come from mainly plants but have been processed in some way to a simple, sweet form.”
Refined sugar is commonly added to foods to make them taste good or to help them last longer, Fleming explains. (Just think about the chocolate bar that’s been sitting in your cupboard for months—chances are it still tastes delicious.)
Though refined sugar may be devilishly addictive, Fleming says it lacks any significant nutritional value—unlike fruit sugar. Fruits have vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. In other words, the fruit you eat is more nutritious than a bag of candy. Sorry.
How does the body metabolize sugar?
The fruit has fructose and glucose in it—just like processed sugar. Most fruit has 40-55 percent fructose, and table sugar is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. Why does this matter? According to Nicole Osinga, a registered dietitian and founder of Osinga Nutrition, the body metabolizes fructose differently than glucose.
“Fructose is primarily metabolized in the liver. There are pros and cons to this,” she says. “The pro is that eating fructose doesn’t raise blood glucose or insulin levels, both of which—when elevated above the normal range—are thought to contribute to a variety of diseases ranging from heart disease to obesity to several forms of cancer.”
The disadvantage, Osinga says, is that when fructose is metabolized in the liver, it’s typically used to make fats. However, because “fructose is almost never eaten by itself and is usually consumed with equal parts glucose,” she adds.
Glucose, on the other hand, breaks down in the stomach and needs insulin to get into the bloodstream, so it can be metabolized. “The glucose our body doesn’t need right then is stored to try to keep our glucose levels as stable as possible all day long,” Fleming says.
Does the body treat fruit sugar the same as refined sugar?
This is where things get sticky. While the body breaks down all sugar the same way—whether you’re getting your fix from cake or a banana—the process for fruit sugar is much slower. Fleming explains this is because fiber slows down the digestion of sugar, and many fruits are rich in fiber. “Another tip to help slow down the absorption of the fruit even more is to pair your fruit with a meal or a protein,” she says.
Foods loaded with refined sugar—such as cookies—have little to no fiber, allowing sugar to quickly travel through the bloodstream. This is why you experience a sugar high and then crash after you guzzle down soda or eat a pint of ice cream. On top of throwing our sugar levels out of whack, refined sugary foods also tend to lack other nutritional value and are often considered “empty calories” (think candy or sweet cocktails).
Is fruit sugar healthy?
Like any sugar, too much fruit sugar isn’t good for you. But compared to refined sugar, fruit is a much better option for regular consumption. “Fruits have a lot of great nutrients in them that are important for our body,” Fleming says, citing vitamin C, vitamin K, and fiber. “Berries and apples also have flavonoids and antioxidants that can help in cancer and other chronic disease prevention.”
What fruits are highest and lowest in sugar?
Osinga says that berries such as raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries are lowest in natural sugar, while the highest are dried fruits, bananas, and mangoes. Fruit juice also tends to be high in sugar, and it’s easy to drink too much of it because it doesn’t require the same digestive process as a whole fruit.
So, how much fruit should you eat a day? “What is usually recommended is up to three servings of fruit a day,” Fleming says, noting that moderation is key.
What is the glycemic index, and why does it matter?
It’s important to watch your sugar intake—regardless of which type of sugar you’re consuming. The glycemic index is a handy tool that ranks foods based on how they affect blood sugars, Fleming explains. This, in turn, helps you make more informed nutritional decisions.
“Foods that are low in the glycemic index (‘low GI’) are more slowly digested. They cause a slower rise in blood sugars,” Fleming says. “Foods higher in the glycemic index are digested and absorbed by the body more quickly, so they have a bigger effect on blood sugars and therefore insulin. Most fruits are low to medium GI.”
If you’re living with diabetes, Fleming says it’s important to consume foods low in GI to help control blood sugars. She also points out that low GI foods will keep you feeling full longer, which helps with weight management.
The key to any healthy diet is moderation. If you’re really craving something sweet, you’re better off reaching for fruit than a bar of chocolate. Fruit will keep you full longer and provide vitamins and nutrients. Fleming points out that berries are a good treat, as they help satisfy your sweet tooth and ward off hunger due to their high fiber.
But, as Fleming notes, sometimes nothing satisfies your sugar craving like chocolate does. “When it comes to cravings, sometimes it is best to just have a small amount of what you really want.”