“Fructose is a simple sugar with a bad reputation,” says dietitian Carrie Dennett, MPH, in a recent review of this sometimes confusing topic. Here are some facts:
Fructose is a component of table sugar (aka sucrose). In fact, the sugar we use in most sugary foods – including those labeled “pure cane sugar” – is half fructose and half glucose. Fructose is also the main sugar found naturally in fruit. And it’s especially concentrated in agave syrup and honey, which contain even more fructose than high fructose corn syrup.
Fructose is used in the body a little differently from other sugars which some say is a plus and others a minus. For example, it doesn’t raise blood sugar as easily as other sugars, which is good news for people with diabetes. However, because (unlike other sugars) fructose is broken down in the liver, some see it as a greater damage to our health.
Scientific research is ubiquitous when it comes to the health effects of fructose. Several studies in recent years have reported that replacing regular sugar (which is half the fructose) with pure fructose results in lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. On the flip side, a more recent analysis found that consuming too much fructose from sugary drinks increased the risk of metabolic syndrome, a condition that can lead to diabetes and heart disease. On the flip side, researchers report that eating whole fruit or drinking no more than 8 ounces of 100 percent fruit juice per day may actually protect against this same metabolic syndrome.
Sooooo… here are some tips. “Although fructose in moderation seems to be fine for most people, there are two groups that should avoid this particular sweetener,” says Dennett. Some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may have unpleasant digestive problems after eating foods high in fructose (honey, agave syrup, and many types of fruits). Another rare group of people are born with genetic fructose intolerance. These people should completely avoid all fructose – including that in regular table sugar – to avoid liver damage. Dennett concludes that we don’t need to fear fructose or demonize high fructose corn syrup while embracing “pure cane sugar” (which is 50% fructose). At the same time, we don’t need to put a health halo on “natural” sweeteners like honey and agave which both contain more fructose than high fructose corn syrup.
Bottom line: we can eat small amounts of sugary foods and still be healthy. However, excessive amounts of added sugar are not good for us. Experts say we need to reduce or limit all added sugars, including fructose. Most of us could do a better job on this.
Barbara Quinn-Intermill is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist and Diabetes Care Specialist affiliated with the Monterey Peninsula Community Hospital. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition: The Uncomplicated Science of Eating”. Email him at [email protected]