I never thought the day would come when people were scared and worried about eating fruit. And I’m not talking about the scare we had last year when certain frozen berries were contaminated with hepatitis A!!! I’m talking about people being worried that fruit is unhealthy, that fruit will cause weight gain, diabetes and be harmful to the liver. Fruit, the wonderful gift from nature, full of health promoting properties like vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals are being lumped in the ‘high sugar must avoid’ category along with soft drinks, sweets and sugar filled processed foods. Fruit is being likened to chocolate bars and it breaks my heart that it has come to this. It amazes me that while 30% of calories from the average Australian diet comes from discretionary foods people are concerned about eating fruit!
There are plenty of studies showing the health benefits of fruit from a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes to improved cardiovascular health. However lately fruits have been getting a bad rap because of their sugar content, in particular fructose. Fructose is a naturally occurring sugar. It is one of the simplest forms of sugar along with glucose and galactose. Fructose has been getting a bad name because it is processed very differently to glucose. When fructose is consumed it goes to the liver where it metabolised by going through complex metabolic pathways. Fructose is not biologically needed by the body. Glucose on the other hand, which is vital to keep us alive, can quickly get into the blood stream and can be used by pretty much every cell of the body to be used as energy. Recently studies have suggested that consuming too much fructose can damage the liver, increase liver output of bad fats and play a role in insulin resistance. The research is still emerging but it looks like this may be the case when people consume a typical western diet with excess calories and excess added fructose (and sugar in general) from highly processed foods and drinks. The sugar added to sweet foods and drinks in processing is often a sugar called sucrose which is made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose. In the US they also use high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and despite its name the most commonly used HFCS it is actually around 55% fructose and 45% glucose (so really not all that different to sucrose). So while high intakes of added fructose and sugar in general is detrimental to health this is NOT the case when it comes to the sugar and fructose in fruit. Fruits contain very little fructose (and other sugars, such as glucose) compared to processed foods that have sugars added to them. Most fructose (and sugar) in peoples diet does not come from fresh fruit but from highly processed foods and drinks. It would be VERY difficult (near impossible) to consume so much fructose from fruit that it would be damaging the liver and causing detrimental health effects. So remember, while the research looking specifically at fructose is still young it is showing that high amounts of fructose (in combination with excess calories) from added sugars can be detrimental to health, this DOES not apply to the naturally occurring fructose and sugar found in fruits. If you are worried about consuming too much fructose avoid having excess processed food and drinks NOT fruit.
We know that fruit is fabulous, fruit juice on the other hand is another story. A small bottle of fruit juice may contain 5 or more pieces of fruit and could easily be consumed within 5 minutes. When this amount of sugar is entering the body rapidly the body has a hard time processing it all. Studies have actually shown that too much fruit juice can have detrimental effects on the body. One interesting study found that participants who ate 2 pieces of whole fruit each day reduced their risk of type 2 diabetes, while participants who drank one or more servings of fruit juice per day increased their risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Can you consume too much fruit? Well I think you can consume too much of anything. In certain situations some people may want to think about reducing their fruit intake. If someone was consuming an excessive amount of fruit each day (what is excessive? Well it would vary depending on the individual) I would be concerned that the fruit may be replacing other important food groups. Are they getting enough protein rich foods and healthy fats? Are they getting enough minerals like calcium and iron? Are they consuming vegetables, dairy, wholegrains, beans and legumes? It may be a case of reducing their fruit intake to create a more balanced diet. Another situation may be people with fructose intolerance. In this case not all fruit needs to be removed from the diet, fruits just have to be selected carefully and in the correct quantities to prevent unpleasant gastro intestinal symptoms. People with diabetes may find that certain fruits send their sugar levels high. Again in this case fruit doesn’t need to be excluded from the diet it’s a matter of choosing the correct fruit in the correct quantity. And then there may be people who are above their healthiest weight and trying to lose weight. This wouldn’t be due to excess fruit per se but excess calories. Reducing fruit is unlikely to be the first (or second) place to start when reducing the excess calories in this situation. Bottom line is that in a small number of very specific situations people may benefit from reducing (or being more aware) of their fruit intake.
Most people would benefit from including more whole, minimally processed foods in their diet such as fruits and reducing their intake of highly processed sugary foods and drinks. So don’t ban the banana. Don’t avoid the apple. Don’t quit the kiwi. Don’t panic about the pineapple (I love alliterations, I could go on all day…!). Fruit is nature’s superfood. It’s full of health promoting fibre, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants and can be enjoyed everyday as part of a healthy diet.