What the Experts Think About Sugar in Fruit

Fruit gets a bad rap for being high in sugar, but the experts have a different take.

With news like “Million Dollar Matchmaker” star Patty Stanger saying she slimmed down this summer by cutting out fruit (and artificial sweeteners), it may give you pause about whether you should, too.

We chatted with dietitians about what you should know about sugar in fruits, such as how much is too much and which fruits are the highest and lowest in sugar. Here’s what we found:

It’s more about the fiber

“Fruit contains more than just sugar — it contains vital nutrients for good health, like vitamins A, C, K, potassium and even some minerals,” says Kim Larson, R.D., and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“As a dietitian, my fruit choices have less to do with the amount of sugar and more to do with the amount of fiber,” says Cara Harbstreet, R.D., of Street Smart Nutrition. “Fortunately, the fruits that are naturally lower in sugar are also ones that tend to be high in fiber,” she says. Fiber helps slow the rate of absorption of simple sugars (glucose and fructose) after eating.

“Fiber is frequently something I see missing in the diets of many patients and clients I work with, and I personally strive to add more fiber to my diet every chance I get,” says Harbstreet.

Sugar isn’t all the same

“A better context to frame fruit in is to illustrate that it’s not just ‘sugar,’ because it’s naturally occurring sugar in fruit that’s digested differently than other sugars,” says Larson.

Fructose, glucose and sucrose are the three types of sugar. But what is the difference?

Fruit contains primarily fructose and glucose, both of which occur naturally. Sucrose is the combination of fructose and glucose, which occurs when sugar cane or sugar beets are extracted for their sugar. Refined sugars, like table sugar, contain sucrose. “Fructose is metabolized differently than glucose and is metabolized in the liver. It has a low glycemic response compared to glucose,” says Larson. This is a good thing.

Instead of being digested, sucrose is absorbed into your bloodstream and spikes your blood sugar, affecting how you feel. Fruit is absorbed slowly because it has fiber to slow its absorption rate. Furthermore, Americans have steadily been adding more sugar to their daily diets, which has resulted in increased rates of obesity. Added sugars are those that are added to foods during the processing or preparation stage. Added sugars can be any type of sugar, including natural sugars like honey, that are used in addition to naturally occurring sugars, like those that are found in fruit. Some common examples are when people add sugar to their coffee or consume soft drinks. Added sugars need to be limited.

Watch your serving size

While the general consensus is that less sugar is better for us all, the American Heart Association recommends that added sugars be limited to nine teaspoons per day for men and six teaspoons per day for women. That’s approximately 37.5 grams (150 calories) and 25 grams (100 calories), respectively. However, the average man in America is estimated to consume up to 21 teaspoons each day, while the average woman may consume up to 15 teaspoons. This wreaks havoc on all matters of health.

The majority of added sugars in the typical American diet aren’t coming from fruits, dairy or whole grains. According to Harbstreet, “The greatest contributors to added sugar in our diets are sodas, sweetened teas or coffee beverages, baked goods, desserts, pastries and ice cream.”

Two cups of fruit per day is recommended. For example, you could have one cup of 100 percent fruit juice (no sugar added) with breakfast and a small apple or a banana with lunch to get your daily amount. ChooseMyPlate.gov has a great chart to help you determine how much fruit to eat per day.

If you’re really craving sweets, eat fruit

“Because of the many other nutrients it provides besides its energy (from naturally occurring sugar), I recommend my clients use fruit to satisfy their desire for something sweet,” says Larson. Substituting the natural sugar in fruit works even better to control cravings because the sugar is released more slowly with the addition of fiber, which varies from fruit to fruit, and also the form in which it’s eaten.

The best type of fruit to eat is fresh or frozen, without added sugar, suggests Larson. The naturally occurring sugar in fruit is less of a concern when eaten in its whole, unprocessed form.

Fruit is part of a healthy diet

Just like anything eaten in excess, fruit can add extra calories that you don’t need to consume. “My advice is to enjoy different fruits to get a variety of nutrients that promote good health,” says Larson.

As a note: You also want to be sure to choose organic fruits whenever possible, shop local and wash your fruit before consuming.

The following fruits are high in sugar, so you may want to avoid overusing them in your daily diet.

However, all of these fruits also contain vitamins and other benefits that may outweigh their high sugar content. Here are some facts to consider:

Figs: One medium fig has about eight grams of sugar. However, figs also supply some fiber and potassium, meaning they can be used effectively as a post-workout snack to replace an important electrolyte (potassium).

Mango: One cup of fresh, sliced mango provides about 23 grams of sugar, making it a sweet choice. But mangos also pack in vitamins A, C and folate, all of which are important for overall health.

Grapes: One cup of seedless grapes has about 23 grams of sugar.

Cherries: One cup (with pits) of cherries contains about 18 grams of sugar.

Bananas and apples: Depending on the size and variety, these fruits are providing about 14 to 20 grams of sugar per piece. Bananas are typically listed as high-sugar fruits, but compared to others on this list they aren’t the worst offenders.

Again, it’s important to remember that vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals and fiber are all found in these fruit sources. While we can easily go overboard with added sugars, the naturally occurring sugars found in these fruits can create a tasty option to supply nutrition we may not be getting from other foods in our diet.

If you don’t need the specific nutrients found in the above fruits, consider the following list of fruits that are low in sugar and high in fiber:

Avocados: A medium California avocado has about one gram of sugar and 10.5 grams of fiber.

Raspberries: One cup of raw raspberries has five grams of sugar and eight grams of fiber.

Blackberries: One cup of raw blackberries has seven grams of sugar and eight grams of fiber.

Strawberries: One cup of strawberries has seven grams of sugar and three grams of fiber.

Kiwi: One medium kiwi has seven grams of sugar and two grams of fiber.

Enjoy your two servings of fruit each day!

Photo credit: Thinkstock, iStock, HausOnThePrairie.