Whenever I see one of my dirtbag friends eating some evil sugar pastry – which is pretty much all the time – I mention that sugar is the new crack. Being a sugar nazi doesn’t win me any friends, but it does open a discussion.
Everyone knows that processed sugar is bad – real bad. Cane sugar, which is found in everything from breakfast cereals to energy drinks to Vega bars, spikes blood sugar levels, contributing to Type II diabetes, Syndrome X and other diseases. The breakdown of sugar into glucose also results in advanced glycation end product particles building up in the body; these pesky AGE particles are thought to be a major contributor to the aging process. One seminal study concluded that ‘accumulation of AGEs accelerate the multisystem functional decline that occurs with aging, and therefore contribute to the aging phenotype.’ That sucks. In layman’s terms, the more sugar you eat, the quicker and less gracefully you will age. Bam! Case closed.
When I recently chided a friend who was chowing down on a Cliff Bar, she scoffed: ‘Oh I don’t eat these often, usually I just eat fruit.’
Houston, we have a problem.
What most ‘health conscious’ people don’t understand – and I am most definitely including Freely the Banana Girl in this debate – is that fruit sugar, known as fructose, is actually just as bad as processed sugar. Maybe even worse! Let’s see why …
Today, people consume massive amounts of fructose, ranging from high fructose corn syrup found in energy drinks to natural fructose from fruits. Thanks to modern economies of scale (think: Dole Fruits), yummy ripe fruit can be purchased in any grocery store any time of the year almost anywhere in the Western world. Rewind to the Pleistocene era; no grocery stores, no trucks loaded with bananas zipping across the border from Mexico. Our ancestors were dispersed throughout the world, often finding themselves in temperate climates with four distinct seasons. Our Pleistocene-era forebears consumed fruits when fruits were in season, and the season is fairly limited, as was the availability of wild fruit. Contrary to what most people believe, early humans did not eat nearly as much fruit as we do today. Therefore, we did not evolve to absorb large amounts of fructose.
Most people don’t understand the difference between glucose and fructose. Absolutely vital to human life, glucose comes from starches. All starchy foods breakdown into glucose, including vegetables. Your body produces energy from glucose through a process known as glycolysis. The more processed the food (think: french fries), the more quickly it breaks down to simple glucose. Since your body produces insulin to move glucose from the blood into the cells, you want to consume foods that take longer to break down to glucose, such as complex carbohydrates from vegetables. This is one reason my diet is plant-based.
Fructose is another beast entirely. Fructose is NOT IN ANY WAY critical to human life; and our body does not convert any food, starchy or otherwise, into fructose. Why? Because we have no need for fructose in our body. None. Zero. Zilch.
Another common misconception is that the fructose added to soft drinks is somehow different than the fructose found in fruits. That’s like saying the oxygen molecules found in air are different than the oxygen molecules found in water. Nope. Oxygen is oxygen. Fructose is fructose. The molecular structure doesn’t change just because the little bastard gets dropped into Red Bull rather than growing up in an apple. Let’s put it this way, for all you non-scientific folks; if you extracted a fructose molecule from Red Bull and from your favorite gala apple, then put them both under a microscope, you would not be able to tell the difference.
Your body metabolizes glucose and fructose very differently. While every single human cell requires glucose for ATP energy production, only the liver can metabolize fructose. When you eat a diet high in fructose, your liver becomes overloaded and begins converting the fructose into fat. Hence, eating too much fruit will make you fat.
Does that mean you should never eat fruit? No. But the fruit you do eat should be low glycemic and offer benefits that outweigh the harmful effects of the fructose being consumed. All foods contain good and bad properties; the key to remaining healthy is to evaluate each food item based on the risk and return.
Some of the worst fruits are bananas, dates, figs and apples. Always check the glycemic load of the food you are eating. I’ve included a glycemic load table here. The best fruits are avocadoes and berries, such as blueberries, goji berries and cranberries. In fact, almost all berries are packed with powerful nutritional benefits, contain the least amount of fructose of any fruits, and have a very low glycemic load.
So does an apple a day really keep the doctor away? Don’t bet on it. Fructose, even the amount found in fruit, is bad. Like, really bad. Like, Dr. Evil bad.