Why it’s good to eat fruit
With record breaking temperatures around the world, one of the best ways to help stay hydrated and healthy is to enjoy seasonal fruits. Be they juicy peaches, tart purple plums or ripe bananas, they are filled with vitamins and antioxidants – but also sugar. Well, not exactly filled with sugar, but that’s what some people are starting to believe. The more we learn about the negative health effects of sugar, the more fruit gets hammered as a dietary vice. But is this really the case? Do we need to cut back on fruit because it contains sugar? Let’s find out.
“Sugars” is the umbrella term for a few different molecules, and this topic is much easier to understand if we start with some basic definitions.
White sugar or table sugar (scientific name: sucrose) is what commonly comes to mind when we hear the word “sugar.” It’s a simple compound that’s made up of two smaller sugar molecules: glucose and fructose. Sucrose is refined from sugar cane or sugar beets.
The sugar in fruit is not sucrose. Fruit sugar is called fructose, and it’s a single molecule. It’s the same fructose molecule that’s in sucrose, as described above.
Glucose and fructose are both absorbed directly into the bloodstream during digestion. For years, scientists have debated if glucose, fructose or sucrose were better/worse for human health, and the answer is unclear. Usually we’re left with the idea that too much of ANY of these sugars is not a good thing.
The problem with excess
Back in the 1990s when I studied nutrition in university, we learned that sugars cause cavities, but are benign otherwise. My, how times have changed! Excessive sugar consumption is now linked to adverse health effects including heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, high blood cholesterol and cancer.
How much is “excessive” when it comes to sugars? The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends no more than 10 percent of total energy (calories) from free sugars in a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. That’s equivalent to about 12 teaspoons of sugar. Note that number is for free sugars (sucrose, honey, juice and syrups used to sweeten foods and beverages), but it doesn’t include fruit.
The WHO guidelines were set for the chief reason of reducing dental cavities, but other studies show that people who consume more than 10 percent of calories from free sugars have a 30 percent higher risk of death from heart disease or stroke (compared to those who consume less than 10 percent). For those who consume 25 percent or more of calories from free sugars, the risk is nearly tripled.
Too much sugar from fruit?
If you look at the dietary pattern of western cultures, you’ll quickly learn that there is an over-reliance on cheap, processed, sugar-filled foods, and an under-consumption of vegetables and fruit. If we don’t consume enough fruit, how can we be getting too much sugar from it? Well, we’re not.
The true culprit for overconsumption is sugar sweetened beverages, which is the single largest contributor of sugar in the diet. Soda pop, fizzy drinks, iced tea, juice, fruit drinks, energy drinks – we guzzle it by the bottle and the sugar adds up quickly. If your dietary goal is to get no more than 12 teaspoons of free sugars per day, that’s about one 355 mL can of cola. And that’s it for sugar for almost the entire day – that can alone has 10 teaspoons of sugar. It doesn’t matter if drinks are sweetened with fructose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup or honey, too much of ANY sugar is bad news.
When we eat fruit, we don’t take in large quantities of sugar at one time. Plus, fruits have some sugar, but also contain beneficial nutrients like vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. Fruits also boasts a high water content, making them quite filling. Studies indicate that sugary drinks are less filling than solid food (like fruit), making you feel hungry after drinking them despite their high caloric value. Think about it: it’s easy to gulp three cups of apple juice, but how often do you eat three apples in one sitting?
The bottom line is that fruit sugar, or fructose, is only harmful in large amounts and it is almost impossible to overeat fructose by enjoying fruit.
Here’s how the sugar content compares for fruit vs. sugary drinks. The serving sizes for the beverages in this chart are small! Most commercial bottles hold at least 2 cups (500 mL) of fluid, so the sugar content needs to be multiplied accordingly. Many people get 30 teaspoons of sugar each day from three cans of sweet drinks. Yikes.
|Apple, medium||96 calories (402 kJ)||4 teaspoons (16 g)|
|Banana, medium||89 calories (371 kJ)||3 teaspoons (13 g)|
|Strawberries (1/2 cup/125 mL)||29 calories (119 kJ)||1 teaspoon (4 g)|
|Peach, medium||58 calories (248 kJ)||3 teaspoons (12 g)|
|Watermelon (1/2 cup/125 mL)||24 calories (102 kJ)||1 teaspoon (5 g)|
|Apple juice (1 cup/250 mL)||121 calories (501 kJ)||6 teaspoons (24 g)|
|Cola (355 mL can)||152 calories (633 kJ)||10 teaspoons (40 g)|
|Orange drink (1 cup/250 mL)||145 calories (600 kJ)||6 teaspoons (25 g)|
|Sweet iced tea (355 mL can)||133 calories (562 kJ)||8.5 teaspoons (34 g)|
If you really want to cut back on sugar, avoid sweetened beverages (including juice!) and processed foods, like candy, cookies and ice cream. Continue to enjoy your favorite fruits – most dietitians recommend three servings per day (one serving is ½ cup).
Cara’s book, Nourish: Whole Food Recipes featuring Seeds, Nut and Beans, is available on Amazon.
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