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QUINN ON NUTRITION: Should we be afraid of fructose

QUINN ON NUTRITION: Should we be afraid of fructose

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“Fructose is a simple sugar with a bad reputation,” registered dietitian Carrie Dennett said in a recent review of this sometimes-confusing topic. Here are some fructose facts.

Fructose is a component of table sugar (aka sucrose). In fact, the sugar we use in most sweetened foods — including those labeled “pure cane sugar” — is half-fructose and half-glucose. Fructose is also the main sugar that occurs naturally in fruit. And it is especially concentrated in agave syrup and honey, which contain even more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup.

Fructose is used in the body somewhat differently from other sugars, which some say is a plus and others say is a minus. For example, it does not increase blood sugars as readily as other sugars, which is good news for people with diabetes. However, because (unlike other sugars) fructose is broken down in the liver, some consider it to be a bigger detriment to our health.

Scientific research is all over the map as far as the health effects of fructose. Several studies over the past few years have reported that replacing regular sugar (which is half-fructose) with pure fructose resulted in lower blood sugars in people with diabetes. On the other hand, a more recent analysis found that consuming too much fructose from sugar-sweetened beverages increased one’s risk for metabolic syndrome, a condition that can lead to diabetes and heart disease. On yet another hand, researchers report that eating whole fruit or drinking not more than 8 ounces of 100% fruit juice a day may actually protect against this same metabolic syndrome.

So, here is some advice.

“While fructose in moderation appears to be fine for most people, there are two groups who do need to shun this particular sweetener,” says Dennett.

Some people with irritable bowel syndrome can have unpleasant digestive disturbances after they eat foods high in fructose (honey, agave syrup and many types of fruit). Another rare group of people are born with a genetic intolerance to fructose. These folks must completely avoid all fructose — including that contained in regular table sugar — to prevent liver damage.

Dennett concludes we need not fear fructose nor demonize high-fructose corn syrup while embracing “pure cane sugar” (which is 50% fructose). At the same time, we don’t need to put a health halo on “natural” sweeteners like honey and agave, which both contain more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup.

Bottom line: We can eat small amounts of sweetened foods and still be healthy. Excessive amounts of any added sugar are not good for us, however. Experts say we need to reduce or limit all added sugars, including fructose. Most of us could do a better job at that.

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian. Email her at



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