We’ve all heard the 5 a day message and we’ve recently been told that we would be better off aiming for 7 portions of fruit and veg a day. But at the same time, we’re also told to cut back on sugar, and to watch out for fructose (the sugar found in fruit) as it could be worse for our health than other types of sugar. So what should we believe?
The convenient snack with benefits
It’s impossible to deny that fruit has many benefits. For years it’s been recommended as part of a healthy diet because of the high concentrations of vitamins - especially vitamins C and A; minerals like potassium; and more recently phytochemicals, especially antioxidants. It’s also a good source of dietary fibre, which itself has well established health benefits like reducing blood cholesterol, decreasing risk of heart disease and helping to maintain a healthy weight.
So far so good right?
Yet recent recommendations by governing bodies to reduce our intake of sugar, along with popular diets such as the high protein Atkins- style diets and no-sugar cleanses has meant that people are now shunning the snack that not long ago could do no wrong.
Sugar content of fruit
Should we be worried about the sugar content of fruit? A medium banana contains around 14g sugar (about 3 teaspoons) and 105 calories. If we look at a couple of slices of fresh pineapple, you’ll find around 17g of sugar. Not too much you might think. But if we decided to get our ‘5 a day’ from just fruit, we could easily be hitting the equivalent of more than 20 teaspoons of sugar a day, just with fruit.
Is the sugar in fruit handled differently by the body because it’s natural? Fruit sugars are made up of fructose, glucose and sucrose – although actually typically just around 10% fructose. There’s been much research undertaken recently into the effects of fructose on the liver and circulating fat levels in the blood. High-fructose corn syrup which accounts for more of the fructose in our diets than the fructose found in fruit is used as a cheaper alternative to sucrose in the manufacture of many processed foods, including sweet drinks and foods like cakes, chocolate bars and even honey.
Fructose is handled differently to regular glucose in the body – it’s mainly dealt with in the liver where it can stimulate the release of fat cells into the blood. This not only places a huge strain on the liver, but also increases the amount of circulating fats - neither of which are beneficial! Yet despite some people believing that this means all fructose sources (including fruit) should be avoided, evidence suggests that it’s the industrial fructose that we need to watch out for. Unless you’re eating very high quantities of fruit (in particular dried fruit) or drinking large amounts of fruit juices which have a high concentration and sugar and virtually no fibre, you’d find it difficult to get harmful amounts of fructose in your daily diet from fruit alone.
This is not to say that fruit doesn’t contribute significantly to daily calorie intake, and if you are looking to maintain a healthy weight, it’s a good idea to choose lower sugar, lower calorie fruits like berries and stoned fruit rather than bananas, grapes and exotic fruit. And limit intake to two or three pieces a day rather than five.
Fruit can be a convenient, cheap way to get vitamins, fibre and other beneficial nutrients into your diet. It’s fat-free, salt-free and due to the high fibre content can help you to feel full. Fruit does however contain sugar, and although the type of sugar found in fruit isn’t necessarily any more harmful than in a biscuit, it’s advisable to watch your intake of sugary fruits. Aim to reach your five a day by snacking on vegetables like carrots, peppers, celery and cucumber and adding plenty of veg to soups, salads, stir-fries and curries.
Written by Ruth Tongue