Understanding sugar in fruit
By Rebecca Taggart
Recently I overheard someone at the gym recommending green apples over red ones because they supposedly contain less sugar. This seemed a strange idea, since sugar in fruit isn’t like added sugar in processed foods, so I decided to dig deeper. Is sugar in fruit bad for us? Are some people avoiding fruits because they’re sweet? Numerous websites, blogs, and diets would seem to indicate yes. But not all sugars are created equal. The sugars in fruit are bound with beneficial nutrients and fiber that make fruit uniquely suited for the body to process and enjoy.
Sugars are carbohydrates, which in a typical diet make up about 40 to 45 percent of the body’s energy supply. Sugar doesn’t seem to be a bad deal as far as calories go. Fats contain 9 calories per gram and alcohol delivers 7 calories per gram, but carbohydrates and proteins only contain 4 calories per gram. Sugars become a problem when they are refined—separated from the nutrients present in the whole food from which they were derived, be it sugar beet, sugar cane, or corn. Once separated, sugars become empty calories providing no nutritive value. And they are often added to food items that already have little nutritive value in and of themselves, such as sodas and sweetened beverages, baked sweets, and candy.
Fruit is Good for You
Fresh fruit is a raw whole food, made up of a complex mix of carbohydrates, fiber, a wide variety of nutrients, and beneficial phytochemicals, including antioxidants and polyphenols. Fruit’s sugar content, made up of varying combinations of fructose, sucrose, glucose, and natural sorbitol, is an integral part of the fruit. When you eat fruit, you ingest the whole mix of carbohydrates, including the sugars and fiber, plus many nutrients, which research has irrevocably shown offers significant health benefits, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even diabetics should not avoid fruit, according to mayoclinic.com, although they must watch their total carbohydrate intake.
The sugars in fruit come naturally packaged with more complex carbohydrates, such as pectin, cellulose, and other forms of fiber. Eaten together, this complex balances the sugars so that the body does not experience the “sugar rush” that occurs when one eats processed foods that contain a lot of refined sugars, such as sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup. This is why diabetics can still consume fruit.
The rush of energy from consuming food or drinks with a lot of refined sugar, such as sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), candy, or cake, is caused by a fast, large increase in blood sugar, quickly followed by a sharp drop, also known as a “sugar crash,” which leads to feeling tired, shaky, and/or run down. When these fluctuations in blood sugar occur frequently, they are associated with serious illnesses such as Type 2 Diabetes, the most common form of diabetes. A 2010 study of the relationship between SSB consumption and obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and cardiovascular risk, found that people who drank more than one SSB per day had an 83 percent higher risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes than those who drank less than one a month. The weight gain resulting from consuming large amounts of refined foods or drinks with low nutritive value and high sugar and/or fat content also increases the risk of many illnesses, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
On the other hand, many studies consistently find that fruit consumption is associated with significant health benefits, including prevention of cancers, coronary heart disease, stroke, and others, according to the National Institute of Health.
To Juice or Not To Juice
Fruit juice is heavy in sugars and has much less fiber than the whole fruit. If you want juice, it’s better to make your own juice with pulp, but it’s really best to eat the whole fruit. Apple and grape juices are basically another form of sugar used to sweeten juice-containing drinks. Always check drinks for total sugars. Smoothies sometimes contain the whole fruit but often have apple or grape juice added for sweetening.
Green or Red? Just Eat It!
So what about those apples? Red and green apples contain similar levels of sugars, according to a 2006 Austrian study, although any single apple can have a varying amount of sugar depending on where and how it was grown. The reason that green apples tend to be tarter and less sweet than red ones is because of the greater amount of malic acid in green apples. Tart red apples also contain more malic acid than sweet red apples, so distinctions based on an apple’s appearance are difficult to make. The biggest difference between red and green apples is that red apple peels contains more anthocyanins, which account for their red color, and green apple peels contains more chlorophyll.
The bottom line? Eat more apples of any color, and more fruit in general. With fruit, you can have your sugar and eat it too because of its many nutrients, vitamins, and complex carbohydrates and fiber.
Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco-based writer and yoga instructor.