Fructose, a natural sugar with an unusually high level of sweetness, has been the subject of much discussion and debate in health-conscious circles for the past few years.
It has been linked to increased rates of diabetes and heart disease, pointed to as a primary cause of the ongoing obesity epidemic, and generally vilified – but is it really inherently terrible for you in all forms? Are there natural forms of fructose that are better for you than the fructose found in sweetened beverages? And how much fructose should you be consuming on a daily basis? For the answers to these questions, read on – some of them may just surprise you.
What Is Fructose?
Fructose is a sugar that occurs naturally in fruits and other foods; it’s the nutrient that makes fruits like peaches and pineapples so sweet and appealing. Just like glucose, it is a monosaccharide – in fact, table sugar is generally made up of equal portions glucose and fructose.
If Fructose Is Natural, What’s The Problem?
The problem isn’t necessarily with fructose itself, but rather with its ubiquitous use in the food industry today. Because fructose is the sweetest natural sugar – on the sweetness scale, glucose ranks at 74.3, sucrose at 100, and fructose at a whopping 173 – it is the go-to additive for baked goods, candy, syrup, or anything else that needs sweetening. It’s overuse has caused health problems on a wide scale – especially since the invention of high fructose corn syrup in 1996(1).
High fructose corn syrup is a mixture of fructose and glucose, not unlike table sugar, but in a liquid form. Cheap to make, sweet, and with a texture that added to the consistency of foods, it quickly became the most popular food sweetener on the market, used in soft drinks, candy and other processed foods.
Fructose And Obesity
While there’s nothing wrong with consuming fructose in moderation – it’s part of a balanced diet since it’s contained in fruits – the use of high fructose corn syrup in drinks that are regularly consumed in large quantities has had a major public health impact.
One study in the journal Circulation found that men who regularly consumed sugary drinks like sodas were at an elevated risk for obesity, heart disease and diabetes, when compared to men who did not(2).
Although it’s easy to put the blame for rising obesity statistics in the United States on high fructose corn syrup, it’s important to note that countries where the ingredient is not used as a sweetener – like Australia, Mexico, and several countries in Asia – obesity is also on the rise, and sometimes at similar rates(3). But even though it may not be the only culprit in the obesity epidemic, fructose certainly seems to have a role to play.
Fructose And Health
A recent study comparing the effects of fructose and glucose found that fructose-sweetened beverages were more likely to cause insulin resistance and other side effects than beverages sweetened with glucose(4). But the researchers stress that more investigation is needed into the long-term health implications of widespread fructose use.
The Bottom Line
While sugary drinks should be consumed in moderation and can definitely be pinpointed as important culprits in the obesity epidemic, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the role fructose specifically plays in the development of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
It’s unclear if substituting fructose for a less sweet sugar, like glucose, would solve the problem. From a public health standpoint, the problem isn’t necessarily fructose, but high caloric intake of sugary and processed foods, many of which contain levels of fructose that are higher than what humans were meant to consume on a daily basis(5).