I was teaching a class and a student dismissed the health benefits of fruit, because, as she put it, “It’s full of sugar.” You won’t be surprised to hear this wasn’t the first time I’d heard this ‘sugar in fruit = bad’ idea.
This thought that fruit is somehow a bad thing to eat came into full swing with the low-carb diet craze a few years ago. But the myth persists. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear someone tell me that they avoid fruit because it’s “all sugar” or “loaded with carbs.” So, I’m here to set the record straight and come to the defense of some of the world’s healthiest foods—fresh, whole fruits.
I’ll tackle the ‘fruit is all sugar’ argument first, because it’s just plain wrong. Fresh fruit offers so much more than the natural sugar it contains. This includes water, vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients—those naturally occurring plant compounds that have wide-ranging beneficial effects on the body. Where else can you get a package like that for about 75 calories per serving?
The idea that fruit is “loaded with carbs” or is “full of sugar” needs to be put into perspective. It’s true that when you eat fruit, the overwhelming majority of the calories you consume are supplied by carbohydrate. They are mostly in the form of fructose, which is the natural sugar in fruit.
But that’s the nature not just of fruit but of all plant foods. They’re predominantly carbohydrate. And that means not just natural sugars but healthy starches as well as structural elements, like cellulose which provides fiber. When you eat vegetables, the majority of the calories you’re eating come from carbohydrate. But you don’t hear people complaining that vegetables are ‘loaded with carbs.’
Before dismissing foods as being loaded with sugar or too high in carbs, consider not only the amount of sugar or carbs you’re eating but the form of the carbohydrate as well. There’s a big difference between the nutritional value of the natural carbohydrates found in fruits and other plant foods (sugars, starches and fibers). What’s found, and more accurately what’s not found, in all the empty calories we eat from added sugars find their way into everything from brownies to barbecue sauce.
Faced with a serving of fruit, how much sugar are we talking about, anyway? An average orange has only about 12 grams of natural sugar, or about three teaspoons. A cup of strawberries has only about 7 grams—that’s less than two teaspoons. Either way you’re also getting 3 grams of fiber, about a full day’s worth of vitamin C, healthy antioxidants and some folic acid and potassium to boot. And it’ll only cost you about 50 or 60 calories. All sugar? I think not.
By contrast, a 20-ounce cola will set you back about 225 calories. And needless to say, it won’t be supplying any antioxidants, vitamins, minerals or fiber. You’ll just be chugging down some carbonated water, artificial color and flavor, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 grams of added sugar—about 1/3 of a cup.
Now that’s what I call “full of sugar.”