If sugar is so bad for us, why is the sugar in fruit OK?

By Sheila Kun RN, BSN, MS, CPN, FCCP

The topic of eating less sugar is not new. We have been told to pay attention to the sugar content of our intake to make sure we consume the appropriate amount of sugar. Louis, my husband, teaches the grandsons to read the label; any food that contains more than 4 grams of sugar they should consider how much to eat. This is a healthy practice to ensure the right choice of food intake. What always puzzles me is: “If sugar is so bad for us, why is the sugar in fruit okay?”

I finally found my answer from reading the article from “The Conversation” authored by Ms. Kacie Dickinson, an accredited practicing dietitian; lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics, Finders University and Ms. Jodi Bernstein, PhD Candidate in Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto. Their article, entitled as above, gives us some insight in the sugar in fruit. Let me abstract their conversation for you this week and next week.

We hear regularly from health organisations and experts that we should eat less sugar. But we’re also told we should eat more fruit.

All types of sugar will give us the same amount of calories, whether they are from fruit or soft drink. But the health risks of eating sugar are related to consuming too many “free sugars” in the diet, not from eating sugars that are naturally present in fruits or milk.

Types of sugar in food

Sugar in food and drinks comes in various forms. Sugar molecules are classified as monosaccharides (single sugar molecules such as glucose and fructose) and disaccharides (more complex structures such as sucrose and lactose).

Fruit contains natural sugars, which are a mix of sucrose, fructose and glucose. Many people have heard that sugar is bad, and think that this must also therefore apply to fruits.

But fructose is only harmful in excess amounts, and not when it comes from fruit. It would be incredibly difficult to consume excessive amounts of fructose by eating whole fruits.

It’s much easier to consume excess sugar from foods and drinks that contain “free sugars”.

Free sugars include these same sugars (fructose, glucose, sucrose), but in this case they have been removed from their naturally occurring source (rather than being eaten as natural parts of fruits, dairy products, and some vegetables and grains). This includes sugar that is added to food and drinks by food companies, cooks or consumers.

Health risks come from free sugars, not fruits

Evidence shows that the health risks from sugars, such as tooth decay and unhealthy weight gain, are related to consuming too many free sugars in the diet, not from eating sugars that are naturally present in fruits or milk.

For this reason it is recommended that no more than 10% of your daily calories come from free sugars. For the average adult, this is about 50g or only slightly more than the amount of sugar in a can of regular soft drink or soda. It’s estimated that Australians get around 60% (65g) of their sugar intake from free sugars.

Foods that are sources of free sugars, such as juices, soft drinks, biscuits and lollies, are often high in calories and have little other nutritional value. It is often easy to consume more of them compared with fresh fruit and they also may be replacing other nutritious foods in the diet.

Consider a bottle of fruit juice – you would have to eat six whole oranges to get the same amount of sugar you consume in the juice. And because the fruit is in juice form, it counts towards your daily limit of free sugars.

Calories from drinks that contain sugar often become an addition to the calories you are eating from food, which may lead to weight gain over time.

Eating large amounts of dried fruit is also not a good idea if you are limiting your sugar intake. Through the process of removing water from the fruit, nutrients are concentrated, such that dried apricots, for example, contain about six times as much sugar (40g per 100g) as fresh apricots (6g per 100g).

The take home lessons I have from the above reading is this: 1) There is a huge difference in the sugar content between fruit and free sugar added to our soft drinks or food. 2) Beware of dried fruit as it might contain much higher concentration of sugar than when they are fresh.

On a personal note, if you are like Louis, he pays attention to whether the fruit is too ripe. The sugar content in a green banana is less than a ripe one.

Your home work from the Care Ministry this week: Identify the possible sources of free sugar in your food/drink.

The Care Ministry welcomes your comments/suggestions: kunlouis@gmail.com

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