Is Sugar in Fruit Bad? What About Honey, Maple Syrup, or Agave?

During my time as a professor, I was teaching a class, and a student dismissed the health benefits of fruit because, as she put it, “It’s full of sugar.” Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t the first time I’d heard this “sugar in fruit = bad” statement.

The thinking that fruit is unhealthy or can deter weight loss efforts has persisted since the birth of low-carb diet fads years ago. Even today, some influencers tell people to avoid fruit because it’s “all sugar” or “loaded with carbs.”

So, I’m here to set the record straight and come to the defense of some of the world’s healthiest foods—fresh, whole fruits.

Is Fruit Really All Sugar and Carbs?

I’ll tackle the “fruit is all sugar” argument first because it’s just plain wrong. Fresh fruit offers so much more than its natural sugar content. This includes water, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients—those naturally occurring plant compounds that have wide-ranging beneficial effects on the body.

Where else can you get a package like that for about 75 calories per serving?

The idea that fruit is “loaded with carbs” or is “full of sugar” needs to be put into perspective. It’s true that when you eat fruit, most of the calories you consume are supplied by carbohydrates. They are mostly in the form of fructose, which is the natural sugar in fruit. But that’s the nature not just of fruit but of all plant foods.

Understanding Healthy Carbohydrates from Plant Foods

Plant foods are predominantly carbohydrate, and that means not just natural sugars but also healthy starches as well as structural elements like cellulose, which provides fiber.

When you eat vegetables, the majority of the calories you’re eating come from carbs, too, but you don’t hear people complaining that vegetables are “loaded with carbs.”

Before dismissing foods as being loaded with sugar or too high in carbs, consider not only the amount of sugar or carbs you’re eating, but the form of the carbohydrate as well. There’s a big difference between the nutritional value of the natural carbohydrates found in fruits and other plant foods (sugars, starches, and fibers) and the empty calories we eat from added sugars, which find their way into everything from brownies to barbecue sauce.

Can You Eat Too Much Fruit?

I get asked this question a lot, and truth be told, you could overdo the calories if you ate a lot of fruit. But if it’s sugar you’re worried about, you’re probably not getting nearly as much sugar from fruit as you think – you’d need to eat a quarter of a large watermelon to match the sugar in a medium-sized soft drink. That’s a lot of melon.

Faced with a serving of fruit, how much sugar are we really talking about?

An average orange has only about 12 grams of natural sugar or about three teaspoons. A cup of strawberries has only about 7 grams—that’s less than two teaspoons. Either way, you’re also getting 3 grams of fiber, about a full day’s worth of vitamin C, healthy antioxidants and some folic acid, and potassium to boot. And it’ll only cost you about 50 or 60 calories. All sugar? I think not.

By contrast, a 20-ounce cola will set you back about 225 calories. Needless to say, it won’t be supplying any antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, or fiber. You’ll just be chugging down some carbonated water, artificial color and flavor, and somewhere around 60 grams of added sugar—about 1/3 of a cup. Now that’s what I call “full of sugar.”

What You Should Worry About: Fruit Juices and Jam

Processed fruit products are very different from whole fruits. With fruit juices or fruit sauces, the skins are taken off, removing a lot of the natural fiber and some of the phytonutrients.  Jams may start with whole fruit, but generally have a lot of added sugar, which dilutes their nutritional value.

It’s better to go for the whole fruit over juices and sauces if you want to maximize the health benefit. In addition, fruit juice is much less filling than whole fruits but packs a lot more calories per serving.

But What About Other “Natural” Sweeteners?

Certain foods such as cereal or yogurt may call for a dab of added sweetness, and at 15 calories or so per teaspoon, a little extra sugar isn’t a huge deal—as long you use it sparingly.

But maybe you’ve seen other forms of sugar on the grocery shelf, like agave syrup or barley malt, and wondered if there are any advantages to one over the other. From a nutritional standpoint, there’s no real “winner.” For one thing, the calories in sugar, syrups, honey, and the like are fairly comparable.

While it’s true that some might contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals, they’re usually eaten in such small amounts that it hardly matters. In the end, what you choose may simply come down to a matter of taste.

Honey, Maple Syrup, and Agave

Honey and maple syrup are minimally refined. What you buy is pretty close to what you’d find in nature.

Bees make honey from the nectar of all kinds of flowering plants, which is why honey flavor and color can vary a lot, depending on the source of the nectar. Most honey you buy is simply heated and strained before it’s packaged; although you can find raw, unprocessed honey, too.

The sap produced by maple trees also undergoes minimal processing. It’s simply boiled to remove some of the water, which concentrates the syrup somewhat. Honey and maple syrup each have about 60 calories per tablespoon. That’s a bit more than white sugar’s 50 calories, but they’re also sweeter, so you might use less.

Agave syrup is produced from the sap of the agave, a succulent plant related to cactus. Agave syrup has a very sweet but mild flavor. Like maple syrup and honey, it undergoes minimal processing at low temperatures to remove excess water. Agave syrup is a little thinner than honey or molasses, so it mixes well in liquids like iced tea. A tablespoon of agave syrup has about 60 calories.

What About Cane Juice, Molasses, and Other Syrups?

Cane juice comes from sugar cane, a tall grassy plant native to the South Pacific. You don’t often find cane juice sold in liquid form as a sweetener, but there are various products that are made by evaporating the cane juice into crystals.

The least refined is a product called rapadura, a moist, brown sugar-like product that contains some minerals—small amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium that are naturally found in the cane. As more liquid is removed, sugar crystals in the form of turbinado sugar and evaporated cane juice are produced. These have about 50 calories per tablespoon.

As sugar cane is further processed into white table sugar, the syrup that remains is the molasses—or treacle, as it’s called in the UK. The syrup is boiled several times to remove the sugar, and with each cooking, the mineral concentration increases, and the syrup gets darker. Molasses has a strong flavor, so it’s generally used in combination with other sweeteners. Molasses has about 50 calories per tablespoon.

There are also syrups made from grains, like barley malt syrup and brown rice syrup. Barley grains are allowed to sprout, which produces enzymes that convert the starches into sugar. Then the grains are mixed with water so the sugary syrup can be extracted.

These same enzymes can be mixed with cooked brown rice to produce brown rice syrup. Both have about 60 calories per tablespoon, but they’re less sweet than table sugar, so you might end up using more than other sweeteners. They’re also a baker’s best-kept secret. Grain syrups are fantastic yeast food and make homemade bread incredibly light and flavorful.

Are Natural Sweeteners Healthy?

Many people argue that these natural sugars are better for you because they have more nutrients, such as iron in maple syrup or B vitamins in honey.

While that’s technically true, you’ll probably use such small amounts of these natural sweeteners that they aren’t going to make major contributions to your nutritional intake of whatever vitamins or minerals they contain. Whether it’s unfiltered honey, maple syrup, agave or plain old table sugar, they are all sugar, and all have about 50–60 calories per tablespoon.

So if you’re really looking for a nutritious natural sweetener, the better option would be to go for whole fruits.  Top your cereal or yogurt with some fresh berries, blend mango or banana into your protein shake, toss some tangy citrus slices into your salad, or enjoy some seasonal fresh fruit for dessert. No matter how you eat them, you’ll be adding a lot more than “all sugar” or “all carbs” to your daily diet.

Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND –Sr.Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan BowermanM.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan Bowerman earned a B.S. in biology with distinction from the University of Colorado, and received her M.S. in food science and nutrition from Colorado State University. She is a registered dietitian, holds two board certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a certified specialist in sports dietetics, and a certified specialist in obesity and weight management, and is a Fellow of the Academy.