The sugar in fruit is almost identical to refined table sugar. Picture: ALENA HAURYLIK/123RF
The sugar in fruit is almost identical to refined table sugar. Picture: ALENA HAURYLIK/123RF

Apart from Adam and Eve and Snow White’s troubles with apples, and the cherry scene from The Witches of Eastwick, everything about fruit feels life-giving, real and “pure”. Fruit has had such great PR over the past decades that disembodied fructose started appearing in health shops as an apparently great alternative to refined sugar of the sucrose sort. But, in fact, both fructose and fruit need a slightly more jaundiced examination.     

The first problem is that the way we eat fruit now is not the way we used to. Many fruits have been bred to contain more sugar, plus a vast array of fruit is over-abundantly and unnaturally available all year round. It’s sweet, it’s delicious, we’re being told it’s good for us, so we’re bound to eat too much of the stuff.

And we also consume a lot of it in processed and concentrated form, whether it’s through juicing, dried fruit, “high-fibre” fruit-based products or even just the processing involved when the supermarket peels and cuts all the fruit up for us, making it easier to gorge ourselves rapidly on the stuff.   

Sadly, the sugar in fruit is almost identical to refined table sugar. Sucrose is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Fruit sugar also contains both glucose and fructose. The ratios are different from fruit to fruit, but the existence of more fructose than glucose is in no way something to celebrate.

While fructose doesn’t affect blood sugar in the way that other dietary sugars do, that doesn’t mean damage isn’t being done at the sort of levels we’re now at. Fructose is metabolised in the liver and has a longer-term, often hidden, roll-out. Increasingly, research shows fructose to be implicated in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and metabolic disease. Some researchers believe fructose may be even more damaging than other forms of sugar.

Taken in along with whole, fresh fruit, it’s a better story. So what about fruit juice? Fresh — squeezed right now in front of you — fruit juice? Really not the best idea. The pulp has been removed, so you’re able to eat an unnatural amount of the stuff more rapidly. Swig down a glass of orange juice, and your body has to manage the glucose and fructose load of four oranges hitting your system in 60 seconds. While fruit obviously has more nutrition than refined sugar, that doesn’t help with the ill-effects.

Actually, the nutrients in fruit appear in many other foods too. If that wasn’t so, all societies in areas that do not support fairly constant fruit harvests would be very ill. It’s a glorious treat, but not a nutritional necessity.          

Unless you’re diabetic, pre-diabetic or in desperate need of weight loss, modest fruit eating won’t kill you. But eat it in whole, fresh, chewable form; a bowl of mango may be hiding almost as much sugar as a soft-drink.