Is The Sugar In Fruit Bad For Our Health? What The Science Says.
I’ve written an in-depth post about sugar before, in 2018. Unfortunately, there seems to be no end to the ‘fruit is sugary, toxic candy’ perception, and I figured that I’d better write something about the sugar in fruit to refute all the craziness before one more person scorns a banana or doesn’t buy peaches this summer. The horror.
I’m seriously on the struggle bus with this whole anti-fruit thing, and I think the best way to explain what you need to understand is to give you a big-picture view of sugars, the research about fruit, and a brief but enlightening reveal of who in fact is saying this stuff.
Keep in mind that we’re talking about whole fruit here, not juices or fruit that has been blended.
Let us begin!
Natural versus added sugars
While natural sugars, such as fructose in fruit and lactose in milk, are found naturally in food, added sugars are sugars that have been added to our food.
Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: your body processes all sugars in the exact same manner. It doesn’t care if you’ve put raw sugar instead of white sugar into your latte or agave in your margarita.
Sugar in fruit, raw sugar, coconut sugar, agave, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)…it’s really all the same in the end.
So next time somebody comes out swinging against ‘refined sugars,’ you’ll know that it’s a dead giveaway that they’re full of shit and that they don’t science.
The Truth About Sugar
If you eat a piece of fruit, you’re getting around 15 grams of sugar, along with fiber and antioxidants.
If you drink a McDonald’s milkshake, you’re getting 74 grams of sugar, with some protein and fat.
A can of regular pop? 39 grams of sugar and carbonated water.
Most foods with added sugars are highly-processed. In contrast, most foods with natural sugars aren’t. This makes a huge difference to your body.
How Sugar Works
When you eat something sweet, your blood sugar rises, and your body deals with that by having your pancreas secrete insulin to usher the sugar, in the form of glucose, into your cells. That’s a normal response, and it happens when you eat any carb.
The fruit has a moderate amount of sugar, but the fiber of the fruit’s cells binds that sugar up, making it harder for the body to access. The digestive system must break those cells down and release the sugar, a process which slows its release into the bloodstream.
But when you consume the shake, pop, or other high-sugar ultra-processed foods, the sugar is easily accessible, ready and waiting to rush into your bloodstream. And when this happens, it can cause a spike, then a crash, in blood sugar. This leads to a drop in energy and may lead to feelings of hunger, although research around this is controversial.
A high added sugar, refined diet is also one that has been linked to health problems, including insulin resistance and diabetes, among many. Needless to say, there’s a good reason why the recommendations around sugar focus mainly on reducing added sugars versus natural ones. Because foods with added sugars are generally not the most nourishing choices.
But a lot of people out there think that a mango is on par with a Snickers bar, and that’s not true.
Oversimplifying nutrition by comparing specific ingredients in multiple foods without taking into account what else they contain is a favorite tactic of certain diet fanatics, but it doesn’t make any sense. I wish more people knew that.
There are plenty of infographics like the one below that show images of how many spoonfuls of sugar there are in certain fruits, but these are so stupid. Who eats pure sugar, and what exactly are these people trying to say?
Do we need fruit?
You can’t just drill food down into grams of sugar or grams of carbs. We don’t eat nutrients in isolation, so while a banana might have 3 teaspoons worth of sugar, the benefits of the banana – fiber, antioxidants – far outweigh the sugar in it.
That fiber in fruit nourishes our gut, helps with digestion, and helps us feel fuller for longer. The antioxidants have been linked to better health, and as far as getting them from a pill, this isn’t possible. Humans have never replicated all of the antioxidants in whole foods in the form of a supplement. Even in Juice Plus (sigh).
Some diets limit fruit intake to specific ones, commonly only berries, lemons, and green apples, and this is ridiculous. Who the eff eats lemons like fruit?
Sure, berries are among the lower-sugar fruits. And green apples that are sour might have a couple fewer grams of sugar than sweeter red apples.
But who cares?
Fruit isn’t and never has been the cause of chronic disease or anybody’s weight problem. And pretending that choosing berries over bananas really makes a huge difference in anyone’s physical health is total nonsense.
In fact, we don’t eat ENOUGH fruit, so how in the world could they be responsible for poor health outcomes? A 2019 systematic review suggests that the more fruits and vegetables we consume, the the lower our risk for chronic disease. But we sort of knew that already, right?
On the other hand, we eat far too much ultra-processed food, which is a more likely cause (among many, many others).
A lot of people want to blame all carbohydrates, including the sugar in fruit, for the ‘obesity crisis,’ but that’s an incredibly stupid way of thinking. You can’t paint fruit, Hostess Ho Hos, and wheat berries with the same brush, but here we are.
What does the research say?
I guess a lot of people are wondering about fruit just like we are, because believe it or not, there’s more research than you’d think about fruit and its impact on weight and health.
I could post studies all day long on the positives of fruit intake, but here are two of the more recent ones.
A 2019 systematic on the impact of whole, fresh fruit on energy intake and adiposity (aka fatness) by Stephan Guyenet, who I highly respect, found that whole, fresh fruit does not impact caloric intake. That’s the same as saying that people who eat whole, fresh fruit doesn’t cause people to take in more calories or eat more during the day. This review also found that whole, fresh fruit does not contribute to obesity.
A 2018 review of studies in Nutrients correlated whole fruit intake with numerous benefits, including gut-nourishing fiber, reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes type 2, as well as improving odds of ‘successful aging.’
A 2016 review of studies in Nutrients found that fruit has anti-obesity properties and may not only help with weight loss, but also with prevention of weight gain.
The overwhelmingly positive association with fruit and health outcomes may be because people who consume higher levels of fruits may also eat a more nourishing, less-processed diet overall. That being said, there is no evidence that shows a link between fruit and increased health risk. Calling out fruit for its sugar is a bullshit fear tactic to further an agenda, but is not based in reality whatsoever.
Who is saying this stuff?
I think the better question is, who isn’t saying it?
The answer to that question is, people who know what they’re talking about.
Most of the anti-fruit rhetoric comes from low carb high fat zealots and carnivores, whose shit I’m not going to link to here because pageviews (and undeserved attention). They complain that along with plant-based diets in general, fruit is harmful due to its sugar, lectins, antioxidants (I know, I know…crazy), and apparently ‘high levels of cyanide.’ Right.
It’s only only the low-carbers though. People have been asking me forever about bananas being ‘fattening,’ thanks to crazy shit in the media and those pop-up ads about ‘foods you should never eat.’
Is Fruit Harmful?
People who say fruit is harmful are missing many points.
- It’s delicious. Really, why shouldn’t that be #1 on this list?
- It contains a lot of great stuff that our bodies love and need
- It has never been linked in any way to negative health outcomes, but quite the opposite
- Fruit isn’t the nutritional equivalent to any ultra-processed food, and that comparison is absurd
- Food isn’t about numbers, it’s about satiety, satisfaction, health, happiness, culture, storytelling, family, friends, and so much more.
Can you eat too much fruit?
Sure. You can also eat too many carrots, but not many of us are doing either of those things.
I recommend most people eat one or two servings of whole fruit a day. You don’t need to count out your grapes or measure your apple. If you’re like me and you eat an entire pint of blackberries in the car on the way home from the grocery store, well, there’s your two servings (but don’t be like me, wash your berries first). Some days you’ll eat more, some days you’ll eat less.
I wouldn’t eat a fruit-based diet, which can cause bloating and can also crowd out other nourishing foods (and macronutrients like protein and fat) that we need. But a couple of servings of fruit a day – whichever ones you like, not just sour apples – is healthy and delicious.