There certainly seems to be a lot attention on sugar these days. And not in the it’s sweet and delicious type of attention, more like the sugar is toxic and the root of all that ails us type of attention. Truth be told, too much sugar is not a good thing and we really should be making an effort to cut out excess sugar. The World Health Organization (WHO) set out recommendations in 2015 to limit sugar to less than 10% of total energy intake (or about 12 teaspoons or less per day). Their reason? Intake of simple sugars has been linked to increased rates of obesity. So yes, excessive dietary sugars are not good for us and probably do play a partial role in our society’s expanding waistline.
Now armed with this information, as well as all of the sugar-related nutrition info floating around there on the web, many wonder if they should also be concerned with the sugar found naturally in fruit. And in a way this question makes a lot of sense, as there has been much publicized about cutting down our fruit juice consumption because...you guessed it, it contains too much sugar. So, if fruit juice is now in our bad books, should we be worried about fruit, too? While this is a totally fair question, the short answer is ‘no’. You do not need to worry about the sugar found naturally in fruit.
If you are happy with a simple “no”, you can stop reading here. However, if you want more details, read on…
There are a few reasons why we shouldn’t be too worried about the sugar in fruit. While it’s true that fruits do contain sugar, they also contain a number of other valuable nutrients including vitamins, minerals and fiber that are essential to our health. Many (or most, I dare say) of the highly processed, sugar-packed foods that are available to us don’t provide us with much in the way of nutrition, other than calories. These “empty-calorie”, sugar laden foods are the ones in which we should be avoiding, not the nutrient-dense (in other words: nutritious) fruits, even if these fruits do contain sugar. Now, we do need some sugar, or carbohydrates, in our diet but it’s best to get them from food sources that also provide us with the other valuable nutrients.
Let’s take a quick comparison between the sugar in 1 cup of orange soda and 1 average-sized naval orange. The 250 ml (1 cup) portion of orange soda contains about 32 grams of sugars (or 8 tsps), while an orange contains about 12 grams (3 tsps) of naturally occurring sugars and 3 grams of fiber. Guess which one of these is going have a more beneficial effect on our blood sugars and satisfy our hunger better? That’s right, the orange!
The presence of fiber in foods has been shown to slow down the absorption of sugars into our bloodstream, improve cholesterol levels and provide a feeling of fullness. There is nothing in an orange soda that will give us long term satisfaction, with respect to our hunger. Even a cup of orange juice, with its naturally occurring nutrients lacks the beneficial effects of the fiber contained in whole oranges. While 100% fruit juice is not inherently bad, it can’t compete with whole fruit on the hunger satisfaction scale.
Studies show that those who eat the most servings of fruits and veggies have lower rates of disease. Even as little as 5 servings of fruits or vegetables per day has been associated with a lower mortality rate and, in particular, a lower rate of heart disease (hint: one serving = 1 medium piece of fruit, ½ cup of cut up fruit or veggies or 1 cup of leafy greens). In terms of obtaining or maintaining a healthy weight, studies show that fruit consumption is associated with healthier weights and weight loss. If the sugar in fruit were really something to worry about, we wouldn't seeing this association between fruit intake a healthier body weights.
While it is important to avoid excess sugars, particularly those sugars found in sweets, treats and other processed foods, we shouldn’t fret too much about the sugars found naturally in fruits or sweeter vegetables, like beets, carrots, or peas. Fruits provide us with so much goodness and their sugar content isn’t a good enough reason to banish them from our diet.
The only individuals I would caution against eating too much fruit are those with diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance. Limiting large portions of fruit is particularly important if you find eating fruit causes post meal blood sugars to skyrocket. However, this doesn’t mean to avoid fruit altogether. In this case, try limiting fruit to 3 servings per day and enjoy these servings spread out throughout the day, rather than all at one time.
So, the bottom line is to enjoy fruit and don’t worry about its sugar content. If you are keen on cutting out sugar, focus instead on limiting the other sources of sugar from foods that don’t provide a lot of other nutritional value.