Sugar in fruit

Five a day is not an evidence based nutrition message. In this post I ask the question – is it still a good message – even though it’s not evidence based? I give five reasons as to why it is not a good message: the lost opportunity of making “eat real food” as well known as “five a day”;  people having five a day ‘as well as’ not ‘instead of’; making bad choices to get five a day; the problem of fruit and starchy vegetables for carbohydrate sensitive/insulin resistant people; and the weight issue with fructose. As Gary Taubes says “If you’re overweight, fruit is not your friend.”

2015 has seen far greater awareness about sugar and there have been many newspaper articles showing how many teaspoons of sugar are in everything from pizza to prosecco. This post is about sugar in fruit.

Different forms of sugar

When we say sugar, we tend to mean sucrose – added white sugar – the stuff with no fat, no protein, no vitamins, no minerals – just empty carbohydrate calories. However, there are many other sugars in food:

  • The simple sugars (monosaccharides) are: glucose; fructose; and galactose.
  • The disaccharides (two sugars) are: sucrose (one molecule of glucose and one of fructose) – what we know as table sugar; lactose (one molecule of glucose and one of galactose) – what we tend to call milk sugar; and maltose (two molecules of glucose) – less familiarly known as malt sugar.
  • Polysaccharides (many sugars)  include digestible forms of carbohydrate…
    –    Glycogen – is the form in which animals (including humans) store energy – in the liver and muscles in the body;
    –    Starch – is the form in which plants store energy – as in grains, pulses, potatoes and root vegetables.
  • … and indigestible forms of carbohydrate – collectively called fibre:
    –    Insoluble fibre – which does not dissolve in water e.g. cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin;
    –    Soluble fibre – which dissolves, or swells, in water e.g. pectins, mucilages, and gums.

Sugar in fruit

Sucrose, table sugar, is one part fructose and one part glucose. Fruit sugar is commonly assumed to be fructose, but this is incorrect. Fruit sugar is also part fructose/part glucose. Bananas and dates, as examples on this infographic, are almost equal balances of fructose and glucose – sucrose in effect. Apples have more than twice as much fructose as glucose, but don’t think of this as healthy. Read the work of Dr Robert Lustig and Dr Richard Johnson to see how fructose is not the halo sugar that fruit pushers would like to claim. It is particularly implicated in the obesity epidemic and Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD).

In the following infographic, don’t be fooled by bananas seeming to be lower in sugar than apples and grapes. The medium banana with 14 grams (3.5 teaspoons) of sugar has 27 grams of carbohydrate in total. Even if we generously ignore the 3 grams of fibre, that leaves 10 grams of carbohydrate, which also breaks down into sugar.

The sugar in fruit is thus barely different to the sucrose in pizza or prosecco. The body does not know if glucose and fructose came from a banana or a chocolate bar. The body just registers the sugar – sucrose in effect – and has to deal with it.

The infographic

The sources of information (US Department of Agriculture database) and the micro nutrients for the fruits and chocolate are in the table below. 100 grams of each product have been analysed to compare like with like. The highest provider of each vitamin and mineral has been highlighted in red and bold. Nutritionally, ‘junk’ milk chocolate provides more micro nutrients than any fruit comparator. (The chocolate should ‘win’ for vitamin A too, as it will contain some retinol – the form in which the body needs vitamin A). If you want to compare fruit with genuinely nutritious foods, check this.

 Per 100 grams Large apple Medium banana Grapes Medjool dates Orange juice Milk chocolate
A (IU) 54.0 64.0 66.0 149.0 200.0 195.0
B1 (Thiamin) (mg) 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.0
B2 (Riboflavin) (mg) 0.0 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.0 0.2
B3 (Niacin) (mg) 0.1 0.7 0.2 1.6 0.4 0.5
B5 (Pantothenic Acid) (mg) 0.1 0.3 0.1 0.8 0.2 0.5
B6 (mg) 0.0 0.3 0.1 0.2 0.0 0.0
Folate (mcg) 3.0 20.0 2.0 15.0 30.0 12.0
B12 (μg/mcg) 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.7
C (mg) 4.6 8.7 10.8 0.0 50.0 0.0
D (IU) 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
E (mg) 0.2 0.1 0.2 0.0 0.0 0.5
K (μg/mcg) 2.2 0.5 14.6 2.7 0.1 5.7
Minerals (Macro)
Calcium (mg) 6 5 10 64 11 189
Magnesium (mg) 5 27 7 54 11 63
Phosphorus (mg) 11 22 20 62 17 208
Potassium (mg) 107 358 191 696 200 373
Sodium (mg) 0 1 2 1 1 79
Minerals (Trace)
Copper (mg) 0.0 0.1 0.1 0.4 0.0 0.5
Iron (mg) 0.1 0.3 0.3 0.9 0.2 2.3
Manganese (mg) 0.0 0.3 0.1 0.3 0.0 0.5
Selenium (mcg) 0.0 1.0 0.1 0.0 0.1 4.5
Zinc (mg) 0.0 0.2 0.1 0.4 0.0 2.3

Some people don’t like it when I say that “fruit is sugar, with a few nutrients, and not as many as you’d think.” The truth hurts, no matter how softly spoken.

24 thoughts on “Sugar in fruit

  • Pingback: Links that worth a click #week9 - Real Food Puppets

  • Hi Zoe, agree although a Swedish study throw up a serious question mark. Recent (30-40 (?) years old official low fat recommendations may be at play, apart from that many fruits are sweeter today than they used to be, when we originally learnt of health benefits from them. (Any pre-Ancel Keys studies out there ?) The observation study compared a number of dietary variables and heart disease for about 1700 men over 12 years.
    On average same findings as you report, no real difference with/without fruit and vegetables (F&G). But the fat intake via milk products was also compared, guessing they looked for support for the low fat diet. But when the F&G eaters were split in high and low fat, differences suddenly became astronomical ! The average heart disease rate( death or hospitalization for CVD) among the men was around 9% over the period. For the F&G eaters the rate however rose to 13% in the low fat group. But in the high fat group (Butter, cream, fat cheeses) the same rate dropped to 3% when F&G was included. Since the CVD risk was 400% higher in the low fat group, at least further studies are required. Seen none so far. Here a link to Swedish summary in which the diagram at the end hardly needs any translation.
    and here a link to the study, in English….
    I guess that the loss of the fat soluble vitamins from the veggies can be a key, but both fruit and veggies also contain fat soluble antioxidants. The result is remarkable as showing that consuming F&G following a low fat diet seems to have killed scores of Swedes prematurely; danger level similar to smoking! Looking forward to hear What your take is, although I agree that fruit and veggies must be separated in all new studies.

    • Hi Sten
      Many thanks for this, which I hadn’t heard of and is now added to my Endnotes – much appreciated.

      My take is that the ‘but for’ is the fat intake, not the F&V. So this study seems to show the benefit of fat (in milk specifically) vs low fat – the F&V may be a red herring!

      Best wishes – Zoe

  • Zoe, great information. Much appreciation for your meticulous due diligence and questioning the textbook status quo. What are your thoughts on this recent article that just came out about sugar in fruit? So link below. Granted this is diabetics so I would deduce that if it does not move the needle for diabetics then those who are not are just as in the clear.

    • Hi Brian
      Many thanks for your kind words. As for the article – nonsense in a word! The sugar has to go somewhere – it doesn’t magically disappear! The body still has to deal with the glucose (blood stream/diabetes) and fructose (NAFLD). Maybe it does deal with it slower/over a longer period of time – is this better or worse? It could be worse. Either way, it still has to deal with it.
      That’s my view!
      Best wishes – Zoe
      p.s. fibre is massively over-rated

      • Very interesting video and I read several reviews from his book. Pharmacology degree from Ukraine 40 years ago and came to United States to work on Wall Street and write nutrition books… The devil is in the details. The book piqued my curiosity and there are more favorable than not reviews. Just want to be guarded against quackery hence my apprehension at purchasing it.

  • Pingback: Sugar in Fruit | Diabetes Diet

  • Also, a diet high in fructose can cause leptin resistance. I’ve always found that table sugar doesn’t satisfy my hunger whatsoever; quite the opposite, it makes me hungrier! Fruit has the same effect (unless I eat it with loads of double cream or something). I could never understand how people could get “full” eating just fruit for a meal, or smoothies for breakfast, etc. This may be another reason why trying to force more fruit in might cause some people to eat more calories.

  • Dr. Robert Atkins always bemoaned the fact that “fruits and vegetables” were lumped together in one category (i.e. “5-a Day”), because they are completely different foods with different properties. Unfortunately, those who like high sugar foods might tend to load up on fruits at the expense of vegetables.

    And one thing that I’ve noticed in recent years is that fruits have been bred to be sweeter; this has happened in my own lifetime. I remember fruits from my childhood used to have a more “complex” taste; a mild sweetness together with a tart taste, and lots of flavor. Now, so often fruits taste cloyingly sweet and “watery”, with no tartness- (and I really love the tartness! Even lemons don’t seem that sour to me anymore). They’re almost like sugar water with a very faint fruit flavor. My guess is that heirloom varieties are lower in sugar and far more nutritious- (as well as wild versions). Every now and then I find a fruit or berry that doesn’t taste like it’s been tampered with, but much of the time, fruits don’t taste like how I imagine they should.

  • I would like to see included in this table avocado.

    • Hi Pedro
      I’m apologising on all these comments for missing them! So sorry – I don’t know where they went – I try to check every day or at least every other day…

      Avocado is here:
      It would do really well – low in sugar – rich in nutrients. It’s not a commonly eaten fruit, so it wasn’t included. It would also be demonised by many diet advisors for its fat content. One avocado – 29 grams of fat – OMG we’re all going to die! The real food world knows the value of avocado, but not the world of plates and pryamids :-)

      Best wishes – Zoe

  • Given the massive hybridisation and forced growing conditions imposed on modern fruits, they probably aren’t that far removed from the chocbar, in terms of nutritional exoticness. Paleo apple, anyone? Nah give me that shark liver.

  • My take away then is that I should ignore the fruit and eat the chocolate? Sounds good to me!

    When I first started low carbing, I tried to eat grapefruit. I thought it was a low glycemic index fruit that wouldn’t hurt. However, for me, it was disastrous. It still raised my blood sugar and caused all the bad effects of high carbohydrates. I find I have to eat low carb, with occasional berries at most. I avoid basically all other fruit. I do eat some chocolate on rare occasions. I try to stay to the 70% or greater though.

  • The other week one of the guys at work commented (loudly), “WHY ARE YOU EATING WHAT FOOD EATS ??” to one of the admin staff who was brandishing a salad for her lunch.

    Seriously though….. not many decades ago (before the rise of widespread obesity) people only ate fruit (in particular) and veg when in season and not all year round but only just before winter, when our ancestors needed to pile on a bit of extra body fat to see them through the cold weather. EVERYTING was organic also meat was grass fed and not laced with antibiotics that make factory (I call it Auschwitz) farmed meat possible and so bad for us / them.

    I think few in the general populace realise that antibiotics make you gain weight by drastically altering you gut flora and that cattle are feed grains to make them literally bang on the beef (funny old thing that about grains da-ya think !!!!!).

    Another factor is “supersize” “go large” “value” “two for one (BOGOF)” so called “food” offers and larger plates.

    Research carried out at the University of Cambridge and published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, suggesting that eliminating larger-sized portions from the diet completely could reduce energy intake by up to 16% among UK adults or 29% among US adults.;jsessionid=A013EF577315BCC68BDF53FDD062003E.f01t04

  • Hi Zoe – I have a genuine question:

    If we leave aside the ‘five-a-day’ mantra, what is your opinion on the work and writings of Dr Ray Peat and others of his persuasion?

    • Hi Isabel
      I’m sorry but I’m not familiar with Dr Peat or others of his persuasion, so I can’t comment. It may be that I should be! Too many people, too little time :-)

      Best wishes – Zoe

  • That doesn’t seem like a very fair comparison. The milk chocolate has over 10 times the total calories as the fruit servings and you also picked some of the highest calorie/lowest nutrient fruits. For example, 100g of orange juice only has 45 calories whereas 100g of milk chocolate has 535 calories (12 times more). If you compared 1200g of orange juice to 100g of milk chocolate (equal calorie servings of each) the orange juice would have way more total nutrients (4 times the total nutrients per calorie in fact). The most nutrient dense fruit, blackberries, not only has over 6 times the total nutrients per calorie as milk chocolate, but it is also low in calories (43 kcal/100g), incredibly high in fiber (5g/100g) and low in total sugars (5g/100g) and fructose (2.4g/100g). And this isn’t just blackberries being an exceptional outlier. All of the berries (strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, etc.), guavas, black currants (unsweetened), muscadine grapes, kiwifruit, cantaloupe, papayas, limes/lemons, oranges, grapefruit, and surprisingly even pineapple have incredible amounts of nutrients per calorie.

    • Hi Sean
      I chose the most commonly consumed fruits (apples, banana, grapes), plus 1 juice and 1 dried fruit example.

      I also compared by portion size and calories, but just put the most objective (gram for gram) comparison in this post.

      I’m not sure where you’re getting your nutrient comparison. If I do the same for just OJ vs. chocolate – comparing the 44g portion of chocolate (235 cals) with 520g of OJ (235 cals), the subject of this post (sugar) is now double for the OJ (44g vs 23g) and carbs overall are 55g vs 26g.

      The OJ ‘beats’ the choc on the B vits, vit A (carotene, not retinol) and vit C (of course). No diff in D or E and choc ‘wins’ on vit K. Choc then ‘wins’ on 6/10 minerals, no difference on 2 and OJ ‘wins’ on 2.

      The point of the blog is 1) to show how much sugar there is in fruit. QED and 2) to show that fruit is not that nutritious. Check out the link in the post to really nutritious foods (liver, sardines, sunflower seeds, kale etc). QED. I don’t rate junk confectionery at all – actively knock it in fact – but it was an interesting comparator to show that fruit is not all that.

      Best wishes – Zoe

  • Thanks for the post. I’m a fan of Dr. Lustig, but his statement that fruit is ok (or something like that) without any qualifiers has always bothered me for the reasons you point out. My guess is that he knows the complicated story you just told about fruit. So he has decided to KISS (keep it simple, stupid) and aim for the low hanging….sugar, first.

    Hopefully, it won’t be like the simple statement “eat low fat” ignoring the danger of eating all of the horrible foods that are low fat but high sugar.

  • What about berries? Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries?

    • Check them – they’re all on the same USDA site. From memory, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are lower sugar than blueberries.
      Best wishes – Zoe

  • Thanks for the great post. Simple and truthful. I often tell my patients that eating fruit is like eating candy. The propaganda from multiple sources tells them otherwise.
    I have watched countless people with uncontrolled diabetes eat bananas and orange juice for breakfast because that is what they have been told to do. While they avoid meat and eggs!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.