Is fruit really packed with unhealthy sugar?

How much sugar is in fruit and should you avoid it on a low-sugar diet?

Posted by for Nutrition

We’re constantly being told to eat five portions of fruit and veg a day but now there’s chat from within the health and fitness industry that there’s too much sugar in fruit because it’s often high in fructose. So, what’s the truth? Is orange juice just a glass of refined sugar, or is there more to it than that?

Rule one of healthy eating is that everyone should be doing their best to eat at least five portions of fruit and veg a day. That goes up to 30 plants a week, if you’re as invested as our Strong Women writer Chloe is. So why then are certain elements of the health and fitness industry claiming that many fruits are now somehow “bad” for us?

A few years ago, I went to a transformation gym that was devoted to getting clients as ripped and thin as possible (which should have been a red flag). When going through my nutrition with one of their trainers, I was told that I ate too much fruit and that, in order to reach my goal, I needed to quit eating things like red peppers, apples, pears, melons and pretty much any fruit other than blueberries. Why? Because they all contained “too much sugar”.

Harpreet Sohal is a registered dietitian who has been fighting the misinformation around sugar in fruit on Instagram. In a post named “Is there too much sugar in fruit?” she explained that fruit contains fructose (natural sugar), essential vitamins, minerals, fibre and water, and that different fruit colours contain different combinations of beneficial plant chemicals (including antioxidants). It’s for that reason that we’re forever being encouraged to “eat the rainbow”.

Is fruit really high in sugar?

There are various types of sugar out there, but the two found in fruit are fructose and glucose.

The confusion starts with how sugar presents in whole fruit versus fruit juice. If you juice a load of oranges to make some home-made orange juice, that technically counts as one of your five a day – no matter how many oranges you squeeze.

A 150ml glass of 100% fruit or vegetable juice or a smoothie equals one portion. But according to the NHS, sugar found in unsweetened fruit juices, vegetable juices and smoothies still count as “free sugars”, which it says is the “type of sugar most adults and children in the UK eat too much of.” Sugar found to naturally occur in whole fruit and veg, however, doesn’t count as free sugars. Confusing right?

While whole fruits and veg don’t count towards that daily sugar limit (we’re supposed to eat no more than 30g of free sugars a day – the equivalent of seven sugar cubes, according to the Association of UK Dieticians), different fruits contain different amounts of fructose and glucose. Fruits like mangoes, grapes, cherries, pears and watermelon are all relatively high in the stuff (the sweeter the fruit, the higher the fructose), while bananas are also high in glucose (hence why they’re excellent to eat pre- and post-workout). 

Is fructose bad for us?

The sugar in whole fruit doesn’t count as “free sugar”, so contrary to what various gyms or trainers might say, it’s not the type of sugar that we should be careful about consuming.

Sohal explains: “Some fruits naturally contain more ‘fruit sugar’ or fructose than others, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Fruit also contains beneficial nutrients like fibre, water, vitamins and minerals. The main thing to think about is the quantity you’re eating.”

The five-a-day recommendation is about eating five different fruits and vegetable portions, rather than loads of the same. Variety is key; by eating a wide range of plants, we can enjoy the benefits of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that come from eating across different colour groups, from red and purple or orange, green and yellow.

No one fruit itself is ‘unhealthy’. However, Sohal tells Stylist that there are some medical conditions that may mean having to “keep a closer eye on the quantity and frequency of the fruit you eat but generally speaking, fruit is a nutritious option.”

“As with any food or drink, having fruit in excess isn’t advisable… but restricting fruit intake could mean you’re missing out on its health benefits,” she explains.

What about juices and smoothies?

Let’s go back to that NHS advice about fruit juices being “free sugars”. When you bite into a pear, those sugars are packed in by lots of fibre which slows down the speed at which they’re absorbed into the blood. It’s unlikely that you’re going to get the same sugar high you’d have with an iced bun after having an apple for that very reason.

When you juice or blend fruit, however, you actually release sugars from the fruit cells. When you make juice in particular, you remove all the fibre from the juices. That doesn’t make juice unhealthy – it’s still packed with vitamin C and potassium – but because it’ll be higher in sugar, it can’t count as more than one of your portions. It’s the same with dried fruits. Sucking all the water out of a plum to make it a prune will make it into a concentrated source of sugar (great for eating on long runs or cycles but not great if you’re eating loads every day).

Should you cut down on high-fructose fruits?

In general, Brits struggle to meet their five-a-day target and given the special status of fruit-based sugar, most of us could do with turbo charging our fruit eating – not reducing it.

Fruits and vegetables are so good for us. As well as the phytochemicals and fibre previously mentioned, studies have shown that people who eat plenty of both have a lower risk of developing many diseases, including high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

In fact, a study published in the journal Nutrition in 2019 suggested that low fruit intake may cause one in seven deaths from heart disease. Low fruit consumption resulted in almost 2 million deaths from cardiovascular disease, 1 million deaths from stroke and 500,000 deaths from heart disease worldwide every year. We literally need to eat fruit. 

The issue here is nutritional misinformation and diet culture, Sohal believes. “As a nation, there’s a public health drive to consume less sugar, but people forget to distinguish that this is for the simple/free sugars, i.e. sugar added to food (eg sweets, cakes, chocolates and sweetened drinks) and that naturally found in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juice. Natural sugar in whole fruit (i.e. fructose) and natural sugar in milk/milk products (ie lactose) are not included in this group.”

The verdict

When asked what she’d say to someone contemplating cutting fruits out in order to reduce their sugar intake, Sohal says: “Please don’t.”

“I’d love to reassure as many people as possible that fruit is not something to be scared of. Some health benefits of eating plenty of fruit and vegetables include lowering your risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and some cancers. The bottom line is: there’s no need to cut out fruit altogether.”

For more nutritional advice, healthy recipes and workout tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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