I have been asked by many people what the difference is in sugar found in processed food versus fruit. I have gotten things such as...
"Isn't sugar just sugar no matter what you eat it in?"
"Why should I eat “healthy” food, i.e. fruit, when it has the same amount of sugar as a processed food?"
"If I need carbohydrates why can't I just get them from a cheap source, like a candy bar?
...well okay maybe the last example is a little extreme, but it doesn't mean I haven't heard it and that some people don't wonder about such things.
Let's start with some basics.
Your body breaks down carbohydrates from the foods we eat to glucose for energy for the body's cells. Glucose is one of the most abundant sugars in foods and is the body’s preferred source of quick energy. It is the primary source of fuel for the brain and an extreme consequence of insufficient blood glucose is coma. If you imagine your body as an automobile, carbohydrates are its gasoline--fueling every one of your cells. Without enough carbohydrates, your body starts “running out of gas.” You feel sleepy, have low energy, lose concentration, and perform tasks less well.
In addition to glucose, there are a few different types of sugar; mostly they end with -ose if you are reading food labels (sucrose, glucose, fructose, lactose, dextrose…). Sugar is also found in syrups used in processed foods as well, most notably high fructose corn syrup. Many food products use fructose because it is considered a sweeter (and less expensive) sugar.
Table sugar is sucrose. Since your body can not absorb sucrose in the form you eat it is in; it must be broken down into fructose and glucose first. This is where we get to fructose. Fructose is the most naturally occurring type of sugar in fruit and is also found in vegetables and honey.
So you look at a piece of fruit and you think, “There is sugar in that apple.” If you look at a food label, the amount of sugar in an apple is about equal to the amount of sugar in a snack pack pudding. We begin to ask ourselves then, if sugar is sugar, what is the benefit of the apple over the snack pack? Especially when kids may have a preference for the snack pack over the apple and some may argue that the pudding is cheaper than the apple and it has a longer shelf life. So now isn't the pudding more appealing? Well, yes it might be to some people.
But let’s look at the apple a little more. The sugar in the apple is accompanied by some other things that are beneficial to the body - first and foremost fiber. Fiber helps slow down digestion, preventing spikes in blood sugar along with helping you feel fuller. This is one of the biggest differences in eating sugar naturally occurring in fruit versus the refined sugar found in the pudding.
It is basically the same sugar after it’s broken down by the body, but after eating highly processed carbohydrates, an individual may have fluctuations in their blood sugar that result in unwanted cravings for more sugar. The reason for this is kind of complicated, but in general, it is important for the body to maintain a certain blood sugar balance. When a high amount of sugar is “dumped” into the blood stream, the body tries to balance this out using a hormone called insulin. This can result in a “dip” in blood sugar that triggers a person’s cravings for more sugar and consequently overeating results.
Aside from the fiber there are many other things in fruit that are beneficial, that you do not get when you choose to consume something else, like the pudding cup. Of course there are many important vitamins and minerals, but there are also chemicals called "antioxidants" and "phytonutrients" that play an important role in the body.
Antioxidants are naturally occurring chemicals found in a variety of foods, including fruit and vegetables that help prevent or delay some types of cell damage in your body. This includes helping our bodies fight off infection and disease. Specific types of antioxidants are Carotenoids, Vitamin E and Vitamin C.
Phytonutrients are also found in fruit and very beneficial to the body. Now you are asking me, what the heck are phytonutrients? Simply put, phyto means plant in greek and then combine that with nutrient and you get “nutrients from plants”. Phytonutrients are things that help keep your body working properly and prevent infection. There are more than 25,000 types of these chemicals which mean that there is a huge variety of them in different fruits, vegetables, and things we consume that come from plants.
So, what's the verdict on sugar? Ultimately, "all or nothing thinking" about any food or nutrient is not helpful. In the end, the snack pack may be a nice alternative as a source of fuel for a snack or as a part of someone's lunch. But, so could a variety of other sources of carbohydrate - an apple, strawberries, banana, yogurt, chocolate milk, carrots, etc.
Eating a balance of nutrients from wholesome, natural food sources may provide the most "bang for your buck" - nutritionally speaking. But, declaring foods as "forbidden", "unhealthy", "dangerous" or even "toxic" is unrealistic and not helpful either.
~ Contributed by Laura Gaffney, Northwestern College, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Val Schonberg is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian who specializes in weight management, sports nutrition, disease