One of the most common health recommendations we are told is to eat more fruit (and veggies). We all know the benefits of eating them – they are whole foods rich in fibre, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. They also make a convenient snack because they’re so easy to carry and prepare.
It’s also recommended not to consume too much sugar in our diets. Excessive sugar can be harmful, especially the types of sugar found in processed foods like biscuits, cakes and pastries – but does fruit fall into this category too? This blog will go through fruit, fruit sugar and how much fruit you should (or shouldn’t) be eating as part of your diet.
The types of sugar found in food
Sugar found in food and drinks comes in many different forms. In milk products we find lactose, in cakes and pastries we often find glucose and in fruit, we find a combination of fructose, sucrose and glucose.
The body metabolises each form of sugar differently. Glucose for example gets absorbed directly across the lining of the small intestine and into the blood stream where it gets delivered to cells and causes a quick spike in blood sugar levels. Fructose gets absorbed the same way as glucose does however it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels straight away – it does this gradually. Sucrose needs to be broken down by the body before it gets absorbed. It initially starts to break down by enzymes in the saliva, then by enzymes in the small intestine that split the sucrose molecule into fructose and glucose, which then get absorbed as mentioned above.
There are also two main types of sugars (carbohydrates) that we can consume from our diet:
- Simple sugars (like table sugar, chocolate bars and soft drinks) get broken down quickly and cause a sudden spike in blood sugar levels, providing a short-lasting source of energy
- Complex sugars (such as sweet potato and whole grains) take longer to digest and are a more stable source of energy as they don’t cause a sudden spike in blood sugar levels
Fruit falls into the ‘complex’ type of sugars, meaning the body gradually uses up fruit’s naturally occurring sugars, supporting a longer lasting and more stable elevation in blood sugar (and energy).
Too much sugar is harmful, depending on its context
The body needs sugar (carbohydrates) to function at its best. Sugar plays important roles in digestion, brain health and energy production. When we eat foods that contain sugars, such as fruit, the sugars get digested and broken down, then enter the blood stream and are carried around the body to be used as a source of energy for our cells in the form of adenosine-triphosphate (aka ATP) or stored in the liver as glycogen until our bodies need to use it.
When we walk the dog, participate in our gym classes or do the housework, our bodies initially use the sugar that’s in our bloodstream and then, if we are moving for a longer period of time, our bodies will use our liver’s stored glucose (i.e. glycogen) as fuel. Although our bodies require sugar as fuel, too much can be harmful.
Sugar is only harmful in excessive amounts and not when it comes to enjoying a few pieces of fruit a day. It is much easier to consume excessive amounts of sugar from foods and drinks that contain ‘free sugars’ i.e. sugars that have removed from their naturally occurring source (like in fruit and milk) and are added to items like soft drinks and sweets.
Research shows that the health risks associated with sugar, like tooth decay and unhealthy weight gain, are related to consuming too many free sugars in the diet and not from eating sugars that are naturally present in fresh fruit.
Fruit is not only made up of sugar!
Antioxidants: these are plant chemicals that protect our cells from damage against free radicals. Fruit rich in bright and deep colours (think berries, cherries and figs) are especially rich in antioxidants.
Fibre: Fibre is an important nutrient found in fruit. It helps keep our digestive systems healthy and keeps us feeling fuller for longer. Just one banana for example, provides us with around a quarter of our daily intake of fibre!
Fresh fruit also contains water (especially watermelon, oranges & mandarins) which helps contribute to the recommended 8 glasses of water per day.
What do the experts say?
The Australian ‘Eat For Health’ Dietary Guidelines state that enjoying two pieces of fruit every day as part of a balanced diet is associated with a reduced risk of obesity and weight gain. Interestingly, fruit juice is lower in fibre and higher in sugar than a piece of fresh fruit and consequently, is associated with increased weight gain. While it can be enjoyed occasionally, opt for fresh fruit over fruit juice.
Fruit is healthy for most people, so if you can tolerate it and you’re not following a particular diet, enjoy fresh fruit every day!
Please seek guidance from your doctor or medical professional before making any significant changes to your diet. How much fruit you can eat in a day will depend on your current health status and based on any recommendations you have been given from your health professional.
Australian Government, National Health and Medical Research Council (2013), Australian Dietary Guidelines Eat For Health, cited on 29.4.2020, accessed < https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/n55_australian_dietary_guidelines.pdf>
Dickinson, K., Bernstein, J. (2018), If sugar is so bad for us, why is the sugar in fruit OK? The Conversation, cited on 5/5/2020, accessed < https://theconversation.com/if-sugar-is-so-bad-for-us-why-is-the-sugar-in-fruit-ok-89958>
Groves, M. (2018), Sucrose vs Glucose vs Fructose: What’s the Difference? HealthLine, cited on 4/5/2020, accessed < https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/sucrose-glucose-fructose>
Gunnars, K. (2018), Is Fruit Good or Bad for Your Health? The Sweet Truth, HealthLine, cited on 29.4.2020, accessed < https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/is-fruit-good-or-bad-for-your-health>
Macdonald, I. (2003), Carbohydrates: Metabolism of Sugars, Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 889-891