While there are many hotly disputed topics in nutrition, sugar is not one of them: across the board, most of us recognise sugar as ‘empty calories’ and know it is not good for us. Unfortunately, however, labelling sugar as ‘bad’ has resulted in many of us believing that the sugar in fruit should also to be feared and its consumption limited.
It’s time to clear up some confusion! First, it’s important to understand that the term ‘sugar’ encompasses many forms of sugar. While some sugars naturally occur in foods such as in fruit or milk, others, known as ‘free sugars’, are refined and added to processed or semi-processed foods to enhance sweetness and to deliver a more palatable food. Honey and syrups are exceptions to this - while they are naturally occurring, they are still classified as ‘free sugars’. Although all sugars deliver the same amount of calories, whether in their natural or processed state, the health risks of eating sugars are linked to overconsumption of ‘free sugars’ - not the sugars naturally occurring in fruit.
But if sugar is unhealthy, why is the sugar in fruit ok – even healthy?
While both fruit and table sugar contain a mix of sucrose, fructose and glucose, it would be incredibly difficult to consume excessive amounts of fructose by eating whole fruits. Conversely, consuming excessive sugar is incredibly easy from foods and drinks that contain “free sugars”. Consider for example that eating only 5 Tim Tams can deliver 40g of sugar, which is well above the upper consumption limit set by the American Heart Association recommendation of no more than 6 tsp (24g) of sugar for women & 9 tsp (36g) for men per day.
Does this upper limit apply to natural sugars in fruit as well?
Considering that one orange can pack 12g grams of sugar, many people see this as a reason to limit their fruit intake. However, evidence suggests that in almost any amount, fruits are not harmful and are even beneficial. When scientists had subjects consume 20 servings of fruit per day, not only did they find no adverse effects on weight, blood pressure, or cholesterol - they found an improvement all these markers. This is likely because, besides the sugar, fruits also contain good amounts of fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients which are essential for good health. The fibre is what really separates naturally occurring sugars from ‘free sugars’: it has been shown to effectively slow down the absorption of sugar into our bloodstream. In short, as long as we’re eating a balanced and varied diet, there is absolutely no reason to limit fruit intake - even bananas!
Are fresh, frozen, dried or juiced fruits equally nutritious?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Even though we’ve established that fruit is incredibly healthy, the way that fruit is processed can influence its composition. Unsweetened frozen fruit tends to involve minimal processing and is therefore comparable to fresh fruit in terms on nutrients. Fruit destined to be frozen is usually subjected to a short period of heat to prevent it from breaking down, after which the fruit is frozen, a process which preserves its nutrients. Dried fruit, however, is to be limited or only enjoyed in moderation. The drying process removes water from the fruit and thus turns a perfectly healthy fruit into a real ‘sugar bomb’: a fresh apricot contains about 6g of sugar per 100g of fruit, while its dried counterpart can contain up to 40g per 100g of fruit.
While this isn’t problematic in itself as the sugar is in its natural form, due to the removal of water, dried fruit often contains a concentrated amount of calories: just 100g can have 350 calories! If you’re anything like me, you’d be eating a few dried apricots in a mouthful, and before you know it, you’ve had 10 - so my advice would be to just go for the fresh option! Lastly, fruit juices are better than drinking soda or sugary drinks, but they are definitely not as healthy as their whole food counterpart: the juicing process strips the majority of the fibre away and results in a higher percentage of sugar, without doing much to make us feel full. Smoothies fair better than juices as the fibre remains intact, but keep in mind they may be hiding a surprising amount of calories and they are unlikely to keep us full for long.
Make sure you follow Simon Hill on Instagram @plant_proof for more tips and look out for his book that he’s publishing early 2020 globally with Penguin (all profits being donated to charity)