Salad Menu - Sugar in Fruit: Unhealthy or Healthy?

  Sugar in Fruit: Unhealthy or Healthy?

If you have kids, you’ve probably heard the words, “I’m hungry!” about a million times—typically as you’re racing to finish dinner. A friend of mine always responds with, “Eat a piece of fruit!” His kitchen always has a fruit bowl filled with fruit like oranges, apples, and bananas. It seems to stave off the hunger pangs for his kids until dinner is on the table. 

Like me, my friend assumes that fruit presents a healthier option than a sugary, processed snack food. But the sugar in fruit is sugar, so could my friend be suggesting an unhealthy snack? And I love fruit smoothies, but is it any healthier than a sugary soda?

I wanted to find out if my friend’s belief in fruit as a healthy snack, and mine, had any merit. 

What kind of sugar do you find in fruit?

Is the Sugar in Fruit Dangerous to My Health explains that fruit contains a combination of three sugars: fructose, glucose, and sucrose. Too much fructose is linked to issues like weight gain and insulin resistance. However, the article states that because fruit also has fiber, the body absorbs the fructose much more slowly than if given fructose in a soda or other fructose-based beverage or snack. To me, that means your hunger gets satisfied from the bulk of fiber and you don’t experience that immediate blood sugar spike that’s associated with insulin resistance. 

Which fruits pack the least and most sugar?

Even though fiber and additional nutrients make the sugar in fruit less of an issue in my opinion, I still want to make sure I’m not consuming or serving my family too much sugar, no matter the source. Just as a general rule of thumb guide, the American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 37.5 grams per day for men (9 teaspoons) and 25 grams per day for women (6 teaspoons). 

This chart offered a quick look at the sugar content of some of the most common fruits. Grapefruit and raspberries, two of my favorite fruits, have far lower levels of sugar than other fruits, with 5 grams and 4.6 grams of sugar per 100 grams of fruit, respectively. Plus, raspberries contain relatively higher amounts of fiber than other fruits.

At the high end of the sugar content scale, bananas top the list with 22 grams per 100 grams of fruit, although fructose accounts for only 24 percent of that sugar content. In comparison, pears tip the scales with the most fructose content at 73 percent, followed closely by the Asian pear (known as nashi) at 66 percent, and your basic apple at 56 percent. As a rough estimate, 2 grams of fructose equals a teaspoon of table sugar. 

I also loved this chart, too. It plots fructose against fiber content of various fruits, using pictures of the fruits along with their names. The different varieties of a given fruit likely account for the discrepancies in the sugar content listed by these charts and others. 

So is fruit a healthy snack? 

On balance, I’d say yes. Most fruits offer fiber, along with many vitamins and minerals that our bodies need. Given the alternative that people often choose, like a power bar, or worse yet, a regular candy bar with around 30 grams of sugar and negligible nutritional value, fruit is by far the better choice. Seeing the sugar content of many sugary foods opened my eyes to just how big a tradeoff you make when you eat candy rather than fruit or some other healthy snack. 

That said, vegetables pack far more fiber and nutrition for the amount of sugar they contain than fruit. The Harvard School of Public Health’s “Healthy Eating Plate” gives a good visual cue about how much fruit to eat relative to vegetables. I’d say roughly twice as much vegetables as fruit. So even through fruit is far better for you than candy, don’t forget to snack on vegetables even more!