The Truth About Fructose

It Comes From Fruit, But That Doesn't Mean It's Always Good For You

Health story on the different kinds of sweeteners and how our bodies respond to them. Sucrose, gluc : News Photo CompAdd to Board Health story on the different kinds of sweeteners and how our bodies respond to them. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Contributor / Getty Images

Sugar used to be such a simple thing, a basic household staple that was sprinkled over cereal and stirred into coffee or easily borrowed from a neighbor in a baking emergency. White (or brown) sugar were basically the only types of sugar people consumed, in amounts that were fairly easy to understand and even control.

Now, however, because so many foods contain added sugar, it's become a public health concern.

People consume significantly more sugar than in the past in the form of fructose, which may be added in sometimes copious amounts to processed foods. For that reason, it's important to understand what fructose is and why you should watch out for it.

The Difference Between Fructose and Sucrose

The glistening white stuff you might keep in a bowl on the kitchen table or in the pantry next to the flour is sucrose. It comes from sugar cane and sugar beets. Fructose a simple sugar, one of two sugar molecules that make up sucrose; the other is glucose. All foods that contain sugar contain fructose.

Fructose is often called fruit sugar because it occurs naturally in many fruits, such as berries, melons, and apples. It's also found in certain vegetables, including beets, sweet potatoes, and onions. Given that it's a component of so many healthy foods, fructose may not seem like such a bad thing. However, as a stand-alone sweetener, fructose is nearly twice as sweet as table sugar and can give a similar rise in blood sugar as sucrose.

Fructose in the Food We Eat

In all likelihood, you eat much more fructose than your great-great-grandparents did. Two hundred years ago, the average American consumed about two pounds of sugar in an entire year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Today that number is 152 pounds—about three pounds, or six cups of sugar per week.

Fructose is commonly used in processed foods partly because it's less expensive to produce than sucrose and it takes less of it to get the same level of sweetness. It's often consumed in the form of high fructose corn syrup—fructose that's been combined with corn syrup and chemically treated to increase the concentration and sweetness of the fructose.

You may be surprised to learn that 74 percent of all foods contain some type of added sugar and not just in foods that taste sweet. It's also hiding in everything from bottled salad dressings to ketchup.

One of the main ways people ingest added sugars, though, is through sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, energy drinks, and sweetened ice tea sold in bottles. Americans drink five times as much soda as they did in 1950, for example.

Numerous studies have suggested that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes in both children and adults. Added sugar has even been linked to cognitive decline and some cancers, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Nutrients.

How Much Sugar is Safe?

The DDHS says Americans should limit sugar to 10 percent of the total number of calories they eat each day.

That adds up to around 13 teaspoons, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. The current average is 42.5 teaspoons of sugar each day, so if you aren't already watching your sugar intake and eat and drink a lot of processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages, you may want to cut back on both by quite a lot.

Some ways to do that include swapping out soda for flavored seltzer or plain seltzer mixed with 100 percent fruit juice; snacking on fruits or raw veggies rather than cookies or candy; and opting for unsugared cereals topped with fresh fruit. Watch out for foods labeled "fat free" as well: They're often loaded with extra sugar to make up for loss of flavor when fat is left out.

It may be hard at first to wean yourself off added sugar. Just take it slow and eventually you'll develop a preference for foods that aren't overly sweet, and you may see your weight drop and your health improve in the process.

Sources:

Popkin, Barry M and Hawkes, Corinna. "Sweetening of the Global Diet, Particularly Beverages: Patterns, Trends, and Policy Responses." The Lancet: Diabetes & Endocrinology. Dec 1, 2015. 

Rippe, James M and Angelopoulos, Theodore J. "Relationship Between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding." Nutrients. Nov 2016; 8(11): 697.

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