Fructose, a simple sugar with complex effects in the body — is in the forefront of health news. Why? Because taste enhancers and preservatives like fructose are added to almost every packaged and processed food. And busy Americans eat a lot of these convenient but unhealthy snacks and meals.
Fructose Vs. Glucose: All About Insulin
First, let’s look at the difference between fructose and glucose, which are metabolized differently in the body. Plain old sugar is a 50-50 mix of both of these basic monosaccharides. But glucose, the most common monosaccharide found in nature, is preferable to the super-sweet fructose because it triggers the pancreas to release insulin, which affects blood-sugar levels. Extra insulin that’s not taken into the cell can then be used as fuel (stored as glycogen) in muscles and fat.
Fructose doesn’t stimulate insulin secretion like glucose does. In fact, this simple sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream from the small intestine slower than glucose. And where glucose passes through the gut membrane barrier, fructose needs help — from the “fructose transporter” GLUT5 — within the gut. When excess fructose is not properly broken down, it can lead to unwanted gut bacteria and feed existing bacteria, increasing various gases in the gut. One study shows how the gut’s microbiome can shift with excess sugar.
Additionally, fructose is processed (and stored) in the liver. When consumed in high amounts, without the balancing fiber from fruits and vegetables, fructose can put stress on the liver and lead to low-density lipoproteins that may contribute to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and obesity. In fact, excessive fructose intake is leading to many unhealthy symptoms we see today, including:
- Increase in body weight
- Malabsorption, nutrient deficiencies
- Poor insulin regulation and blood sugar control
- Blood pressure dysregulation
- Suppressed immune function
- Higher oxidative stress levels
Sugar can even mess with your heart health and lead to increased risk of Type 2 diabetes if your circadian rhythm is off because of patterns like eating late, shift work, or genetic changes.
Foods High in Fructose
So what’s the best course of action to ward off these unsavory states? As much as possible, avoid foods high in fructose. Better yet, choose whole foods whenever possible. But since none of us are perfect, here’s a list of fructose-laden foods you should consider eliminating or eating in moderation:
- Table sugar
- Processed honey
- Some fruits (apples, grapes, watermelon, pears, dry figs, prunes)
- Juices, especially apple and pomegranate
- Some vegetables (asparagus, chicory roots, leeks, onions)
Be a Food Detective: Read Nutrition Labels for Hidden Sugars
The problem is fructose also shows up on labels as high-fructose corn syrup and other covert names like sucrose. It’s important to read labels and use common sense because many “healthy” foods may still be high in sugar. And, remember, sugar is not only for added sweetness but to also extend the shelf life of certain foods. Be a good detective, and check the labels on the foods you eat every day, but especially these sneaky offenders:
- Dairy products & dairy alternatives
- Low-fat products
- Soda, sports & energy drinks
- Vitamins & supplements
- Sauces & condiments
- Salad dressings
- Breakfast foods
- Coffee drinks
So what really is added sugar? Reading the nutrition labels of the foods you consume regularly can quickly help you understand just how much sugar is in your staples. In 2019, nutrition labels were updated to show the amount of added sugar in each product, which is very helpful. It breaks down like this:
Total sugars = all sugars = naturally occurring or present sugars + added sugar
Added sugar = sugar that is added during the processing of foods
It’s also good to know that 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon of table sugar. Shoot to keep fructose from natural food sources below 50 grams a day and avoid processed foods as much as possible to keep those hidden sugars in check.
Better Sugars: Low Glycemics Made in Nature
Unfortunately, sugar just isn’t good for us, but there are some that are better than others if you want to bake with them or sweeten your coffee or tea. Look for minimally processed sugars with a low glycemic score, which indicates they won’t cause your insulin levels to spike. You can experiment with these found-in-nature sweeteners, which also come with other benefits:
- Raw honey: A real food with amino acids, electrolytes, and plenty of antioxidants
- Maple syrup: Make sure it’s 100% maple syrup — not flavored — and you’ll also get manganese, riboflavin, zinc, and magnesium
- Coconut sugar: Naturally high in potassium and electrolytes, and works as a nice replacement for white sugar in recipes
- Blackstrap molasses: Contains potassium, calcium, and iron (one tablespoon has more iron than a 3-ounce serving of steak)
So, remember: Know the difference between fructose and glucose. Keep those packaged and processed foods to a minimum by shopping the outer aisles of your grocery store. Try some alternative sweeteners made by bees and trees. And watch for sugar’s daily sneak attacks in everything from yogurt to vitamins.