09 Apr Fruit sugar isn’t evil
I’ve been asked a few questions about fruit sugar recently – lots of people seem to be shunning the fruit bowl, swapping out their bananas and becoming befuddled by berries. The new ‘Sugar Tax’ and the rise of ‘sugar-free’ challenges has meant more people than ever are forgoing the sweet stuff in a bid to improve their health.
Sugar-free diets in general have been around forever, with self-styled ‘experts’ like Sarah Wilson urging us all to go sugar free for our health. Besides the fact that we absolutely DO NOT have to cut out sugar to be healthy, these books and plans have conflicting ideas about what constitutes ‘added sugar’. Lots of celeb-books have also been penned, hailing a sugar-free diet (oh hai, Davina!) … which were, somewhat confusingly full of high-sugar replacements like honey, coconut sugar, date syrup, molasses and maple syrup.
I hate to break it to you but a quick glance at the chart below shows that these replacements are just the same; both in kcals and how our bodies use them. Our bodies can’t tell whether that sugar came from a maple tree or from sugar beet (plus, head’s-up – white sugar comes from a plant too, not an evil sugar factory).
The ‘unrefined’ versions may have minuscule amounts of additional minerals or micronutrients but you’d have to eat a fucktonne of them to get any benefit. Which might just be cancelled out by all of the overpriced sugar you just ate.
The difference between fruit sugar and ‘free sugars’
Let’s start at the beginning. A couple of years ago, new government guidelines in the UK were released which recommended that we consume less than 5% of our daily food intake from added or ‘free’ sugars. This is where it gets a bit confusing, but bear with me.
The thing is, sugar in some form (lactose, fructose, glucose) is in lots of foods – most of these are things you’d happily consume in a ‘healthy’ diet. Things like wholegrains, vegetables, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, milk, plant milks, yoghurt, cheese – these all contain sugar.
Added or ‘free’ sugars are sugars which have been added to food during the manufacturing process – like sugar in a cake, or sugars found in fruit juices and store-bought smoothies and manufactured fruit purees. These sugars aren’t evil either – they’re just the same molecules which have been added to sweeten or preserve the food.
When we eat these foods, the sugar is released quickly into our bloodstream meaning that our pancreas has to churn out a bunch of insulin to use or store them. This spike in blood sugars is followed by a dip – as blood sugar is cleared away quickly. This dip might leave you feeling hungry and a bit rubbish if you eat lots of refined sugar.
You also might not be leaving too much room for eating things that we know can make us feel good and contribute to our overall health. It’s not to say don’t eat any sugar at all – you can eat whatever the hell you want. I want to stress it again though – this sugar isn’t ‘evil’ either. It’s just sugar, it tastes good and it provides food for our cells.
What these are:
Table sugar (brown/white/whatev’s)
Molasses…(the list goes on)
What they’re not:
Sugar found in whole fruit
The confusing bit
Fruit juice – whole and concentrated
Pre-bottled fruit smoothies
Processed fruit puree
Won’t fructose make my liver fat?
One of the sugars naturally found in fruit (fructose) has been linked with some diseases – like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). What these studies don’t differentiate between though, is the sugar from whole fruit versus the sugar from industrially produced fructose – like you’d find in soft drinks.
They don’t test what would happen if you ate lots of fruit, they basically test what would happen if you drank lots of soda – or ate loads of syrup in a lab. The truth is that it’d be really bloody hard to eat this much fructose from fruit alone and TBH you’d probably feel like shite if you did (and poop for England). When you consume the concentrated form in bottled or sweet form though, it’s much easier to consume a whole load of it and not really feel the difference.
To juice or not to juice?
Fruit juice and smoothies can get a bit confusing – the process of juicing, blending and heat-treating the fruit breaks down the plant cell walls, making it easier for sugars (fructose and glucose) to be released and enter our blood stream. When they’re let loose, the sugar in juices etc acts just like regular table sugar.
The added fibre in whole fruits means the body breaks it down more slowly and so the sugars are released more slowly – this can cause less of a spike in blood sugars. Higher whole fruit and vegetable intake has been linked to overall improvements in health – including in diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
That doesn’t mean don’t ever drink these things though; if you like ‘em, go for it. But try to think about how your body feels when you drink them – sometimes if people drink too much of them they might not feel too hot.
But won’t all that sugar make my gut leaky?
Nope, ‘fraid not. Sugar is broken down and absorbed fairly quickly by enzymes in our mouth, stomach and small intestine. It doesn’t make it down to the bits of our gut where your the majority of your gut bugs like to hang out. This counts for the sugar in fruit too. That means that it’s not actually decimating your ‘good bacteria’ as has been claimed in some studies. It’s more likely that in these studies, the proliferation of these ‘bad’ bacteria is due to displacement – that is that by eating so much high sugar foods you’re not very likely to be getting in the fibre and prebiotics that your ‘good’ bacteria need eat to big up their space down there. A change in diet to include more of these gut-loving foods would usually mean a pretty quick change to gut bacteria.
Look, you don’t have to cut out fruit for any reason at all. Fruit is packed with all sortsa cool stuff; vitamins, minerals, fibre and yes, even glucose and fructose for energy. You don’t have to cut out any food at all in order to be healthy (unless you have an allergy, intolerance or just plain aversion to it!).
No one thing in your diet will bring ultimate health – everything we eat over days and months combine with how we feel, how we move and a bunch of other stuff to complete the bigger picture of health. Fruit and sugar play a fab and delicious part in this bit.
Fruit, fruit sugar and sugar in any form isn’t ‘good’ or bad’. Cutting out sugar doesn’t make you a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person. One of the worst things about these diets for me is the evangelising that comes with it. Food simply isn’t a moral issue – it’s just food; it’s diet culture and society combined to make us feel virtuous for denying our bodies what they need.
My request to you? Please don’t make fruit the new ‘clean eating’ enemy.