Whether you have a sweet tooth or are more the savoury type, understanding sugar’s impact on our bodies is incredibly important—particularly because it’s a hidden ingredient in so many of the foods we eat (so even if you never eat cake or cookies, you may still be consuming lots of sugar). In this article, we’ll unpack what fructose actually is and what it does in our bodies. Let’s dive right in!
Let’s start by getting a bit molecular, because knowing what “sugar” actually is can really help our understanding of how it impacts the body. The two most simple forms of sugars are called glucose and fructose. Both molecules are technically carbohydrates, and when you combine glucose and fructose, you get sucrose—or table sugar (i.e. the ingredient on food labels called “sugar”).
Glucose is the sugar found in most foods we think of as “carbs” (bread, pasta, etc.), and it’s what our body runs on.
This article will focus on fructose (also called fruit sugar) which is in every food that lists ‘sugar’ as an ingredient as well as in fruit, fruit juices, and virtually every other sweetener (cane sugar, beet sugar, brown sugar, white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, you name it… except for, of course, sugar-free sweeteners).
Fructose consumption across the world has been booming in recent decades. In countries like America, sugar intake has doubled in just 30 years. In essentially every country in the world, the average person consumes more than the suggested daily intake of sugar—every single day. Almost all of our fructose consumption today comes from the refined sugars used to make breakfast cereals, pastries, sodas, fruit drinks, and other sweet, processed foods and beverages.
You probably already know that fructose is “bad”. But why is that? Let’s dive into some details of how fructose is broken down in your body.
Here’s a simplified look at what happens when you eat, say, a chocolate bar:
The consistent overconsumption of sugar (and subsequent storage of fructose as fat), leads to three major health problems:
As you can see, fructose is not only “empty calories”, but can actually have incredibly harmful effects on our bodies. Scary, right?
We’re not trying to intimidate you into never eating sugar again. Instead, we’re here to help educate you about what goes on in your body, and to help you understand the science behind the recommendations we make. So, where else is fructose hidden away?
In two words: Added sugar. The food industry hides sugar in all types of products, both as a preservative and a flavour enhancer—even in things marketed as “healthy”. Unfortunately, the responsibility lies on individuals to be aware and read food labels of what they’re consuming.
Some common sources of hidden sugar include:
Awareness is key here. No sugar added versions of everything above often exist, but there will likely be fewer of them, so you may have to do some hunting. Keep in mind that it’s not just the “sugar” ingredient to look out for: Juice concentrates, agave, honey, high fructose corn syrup, etc. all contain equally damaging amounts of fructose. It can be helpful to start by looking at the grams of sugar on the Nutrition Facts. If it seems high, you’ll probably be able to identify a sweetener in the ingredients list.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams of sugar per day for women and 37.5 grams for men. For perspective, 25 grams of sugar is about two and a half apples—or about one normal sized Mars bar.
However, keep in mind that there are other sources of sugar you might not account for, such as hidden added sugars in savoury products or sugars in some vegetables. The point here isn’t that you need to measure out exactly your daily gram intake of sugar, but rather that it’s important to be aware of what sugar is, where it is found, and how it can impact our bodies. Now that we know this, how can we respond? We’ve come up with some simple steps to sugar success here.