Fruit versus sugar, a sweet benefit

Research suggests that the body can distinguish between different types of sugar.

A platter of various fruits.
Photo: Pexels/Trang Doan.

Current scientific findings suggest that the overall quality of a person's diet matters more than the limitation of any specific nutrient, such as sugar. However, it is still questionable whether natural sugars from fruits are healthier than refined sugars from processed foods and drinks. 

Past studies have shown that the body can distinguish the difference between added sugars like high fructose corn syrup, and the nutrient-dense, natural sugar from fruit; however, recent research has discovered another side to the story. 

A decade ago, research showed that the body can distinguish between added sugars and sugar from fruits. Since then, nutrition experts have been recommending that avoiding added sugars from the diet would improve health. Meanwhile, studies also showed that refined sugars produce a rapid and high rise in blood glucose, whereas sugar from most whole fruits produces a gradual rise in blood glucose with the presence of soluble fiber. More recent studies have failed to collect data that supports a causal relationship between negative health and consumption of added sugar. As such, dietitians and nutritionists are starting to question the actual benefit of omitting added sugars while still consuming excessive amounts of other nutrients, such as fat. 

In 2009, the American Heart Association recommended no more than 100 calories or six teaspoons of daily added sugar intake for women and 150 calories or nine teaspoons for men. According to Ruth Frechman, M.S., R.D., the dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, “Americans are consuming 16 percent of their total calories as added sugars.” Therefore, it is understandable that added sugars have been linked to various chronic diseases in studies, with the knowledge that much of the American diet comes from processed foods, soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, grain-based and dairy-based desserts and candy. Currently, limited evidence is available to confirm the actual benefit or effect of sugars from fruits, because most Americans do not meet the daily recommended fruit intake. However, consumers should continue to include whole fruits in their diet and work towards the daily recommendation because they contain other beneficial nutrients, such as vitamin C, soluble fiber, magnesium, potassium and other antioxidants. 

After all, it is more justifiable for health and nutrition professionals to suggest a sensible and moderate intake of each essential nutrient from natural sources, rather than emphasizing the benefit of avoiding or increasing intake of a specific nutrient. 

Consumers should be encouraged to adopt a well-balanced, high-quality diet overall based on evidence-based recommendations, instead of solely limiting the intake of added sugars from processed products and drinks. For more information about healthy habits and programs, please visit MSU Extension's Nutrition website.

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