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Is cane sugar worse than fruit sugar?

With the rise in rates of obesity and diabetes, there has been increasing scrutiny on the amount and types of sugar in our diets. Two common forms of sugar are cane sugar and fruit sugar. Cane sugar comes from sugarcane plants and is a common ingredient in processed foods. Fruit sugar is the naturally occurring sugar found in whole fruits. There is an ongoing debate about whether cane sugar is more harmful to health than fruit sugar.

What is cane sugar?

Cane sugar, also known as table sugar, comes from the sugarcane plant. The sugarcane stalks are crushed to extract the juice, which is boiled down to form crystallized sugar. The chemical composition of cane sugar is sucrose, which is a disaccharide made up of glucose and fructose molecules.

Cane sugar is commonly used as an added sweetener in processed foods and drinks like cereals, baked goods, candy, soda, and more. It provides a sweet flavor, helps preserve foods, and aids in food texture and browning. Most cane sugar comes from sugarcane grown in tropical and subtropical areas like Brazil, India, and Thailand.

Types of cane sugar

There are several types of cane sugar:

  • White sugar – This is the most refined and common type of cane sugar. The sugarcane juice is boiled, crystallized, and then refined to remove impurities and color. It has a sweet flavor.
  • Brown sugar – Less refined than white sugar, retaining some molasses content from the sugarcane juice. It has a light brown color and slightly richer flavor.
  • Raw sugar – Crystallized cane sugar that retains more molasses. It is light brown with a distinctive molasses flavor.
  • Turbinado sugar – Raw cane sugar that is steam-cleaned to remove surface molasses. It is light golden brown with a mild molasses flavor.
  • Demerara sugar – A type of raw sugar with large, pale amber crystals made from sugarcane juice. It has a delicate toffee flavor.
  • Muscovado sugar – A very dark brown raw sugar with a high molasses content. It has a rich, bittersweet flavor.

What is fruit sugar?

Fruit sugar refers to the natural sugars found within whole fruits and fruit juices. The main sugar in most fruits is fructose. Many fruits also contain glucose and sucrose. Some fruits, like figs and pomegranates, have higher percentages of glucose.

When you eat a whole fruit, the sugar is contained within the fruit flesh and cellular structure. This means the sugar is released and absorbed more slowly during digestion. The fruit also provides fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other beneficial plant compounds.

However, when fruit is juiced or processed into sweeteners like fruit juice concentrates, the whole fruit benefits are decreased. Isolated fruit sugars act more like added sugars in the body.

Types of fruit sugar

  • Fructose – Found in many fruits naturally, fructose is a simple monosaccharide sugar. Honey also contains a high percentage of fructose.
  • Glucose – Another simple sugar found in fruits like grapes, figs, and plums. Glucose is one half of the sucrose molecule.
  • Sucrose – Found in lower amounts in most fruits. Sucrose is a disaccharide made of glucose and fructose bonded together.

Nutritional comparison

Both cane sugar and fruit sugar are carbohydrates and provide 4 calories per gram. From a purely nutritional standpoint, purified sugars are very similar regardless of the source.

However, whole fruits contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant compounds that are beneficial for health. Refined cane sugar contains minimal micronutrients or plant compounds after processing.

Macronutrient content

Nutrient Cane sugar (in 1 tsp) Fruit sugar (in 1 medium apple)
Calories 16 95
Carbohydrates 4 g 25 g
Fiber 0 g 4.4 g
Protein 0 g 0.5 g

Vitamins and minerals

Nutrient Cane sugar (in 1 tsp) Fruit sugar (in 1 medium apple)
Vitamin C 0% DV 8% DV
Vitamin A 0% DV 2% DV
Potassium 0% DV 5% DV

Glycemic index

The glycemic index (GI) measures how quickly a food causes blood sugar to rise after eating. Foods with a high GI raise blood sugar and insulin rapidly compared to low GI foods.

Cane sugar and fruit sugar have the following glycemic indexes:

  • Cane sugar: GI 65 (medium)
  • Fruit sugar:
    • Glucose: GI 100 (high)
    • Fructose: GI 15 (low)
    • Sucrose: GI 65 (medium)

Glucose has the highest GI because it can be directly absorbed by the body. Fructose has a very low GI. Sucrose and cane sugar have medium GI values.

The fiber in whole fruit helps slow down the digestion and absorption of the fruit sugars. This results in a lower glycemic response compared to pure sucrose or fructose alone.

Dental health

Sugars interact with oral bacteria in the mouth to produce acids that erode tooth enamel. This can lead to increased dental cavities and tooth decay.

In general, cane sugar and fruit sugar have similar potential to cause tooth decay. However, whole fruits have additional properties that may benefit dental health:

  • The fiber in fruit helps clean the teeth and gums.
  • Fruits like apples and pears produce saliva that can help neutralize mouth acidity.
  • Antioxidants in fruit may help defend against gum disease.

Therefore, while both cane and fruit sugars can lead to cavities, the whole fruit is likely better for teeth than isolated sugars.

Fructose absorption and metabolism

There has been concern that excess fructose consumption from added sugars may have unique harmful effects on liver health, insulin resistance, and metabolic disease risk.

However, research on fructose absorption and metabolism reveals:

  • Glucose and fructose are handled similarly by the body when consumed in moderate amounts.
  • Excess calories from any source can lead to metabolic dysfunction.
  • The fructose in whole fruits is well-tolerated due to the complexity of the fruit and its fiber content.

Therefore, getting fructose naturally from fruits is not a concern. But excessive added sugars, including those containing fructose, should be limited.

Impact on health

Research continues to evolve on how different types of sugars may influence health. Some key points:

  • Overconsumption of added sugars, especially from sugary drinks, is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease.
  • Replacing added sugars with whole fruits protects against diabetes and heart disease in studies.
  • Higher intakes of whole fruits are associated with lower risks of many chronic diseases.
  • Artificially sweetened beverages do not seem to provide the same health benefits as whole fruits.

This indicates the fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in fruit, and not just the fructose content, are beneficial. Overall, whole fruit consumption improves health outcomes.

Body weight

Excess calories from any source can lead to weight gain. Some research indicates that excess fructose specifically may alter appetite hormones involved in energy balance and promote fat accumulation.

However, trials substituting whole fruits for other carbs do not increase body weight or fatness. The fiber in fruit helps induce satiety and offset calories. So fruit sugar consumption through whole fruit is unlikely to contribute significantly to obesity.

Diabetes risk

While excess sucrose and high fructose corn syrup intake are associated with type 2 diabetes risk, total fruit intake lowers diabetes risk by 7-12% per serving per day. Fructose from whole fruits does not have detrimental effects on insulin sensitivity or diabetes risk.

Heart disease

Added sugars increase unhealthy blood fats and inflammation, contributing to heart disease progression. Conversely, replacing added sugars with whole fruits improves cardiovascular disease risk factors. The antioxidants in fruit may also defend against oxidative damage to blood vessels.


Excess added sugar intake may increase cancer risk, while diets high in whole fruits are protective against many cancers. The fiber, vitamins, minerals and plant compounds in fruit appear to have anti-cancer benefits.

Sustainability impacts

Sugarcane production requires significant water resources and can lead to environmental concerns like:

  • Deforestation and loss of biodiversity when new land is cleared for sugarcane crops
  • Soil erosion and depletion
  • Water pollution from fertilizers and pesticides running off fields
  • Air pollution when field waste is burned after harvests

Certain fruits also have high water and environmental footprints, like melons, citrus fruits and bananas. But fruit production is not associated with the same level of environmental concerns.

Shifting away from overconsumption of sugary foods and beverages can benefit sustainability efforts. Population dietary changes towards more whole plant foods like fruits is a recommended strategy to reduce environmental impacts.

Cost differences

Cane sugar is less expensive than most fresh fruits. Based on USDA data, prices for cane sugar and fruits are:

  • White granulated cane sugar: $0.14 per 100 grams
  • Apples: $1.60 per pound or $0.35 per 100 grams
  • Bananas: $0.58 per pound or $0.13 per 100 grams
  • Grapes: $2.88 per pound or $0.63 per 100 grams

However, prices vary based on location, season, organic vs conventional, and other factors. Cane sugar is generally the most affordable option per gram of sugar.

Effects on taste preferences

Some studies indicate that frequently consuming intensely sweet foods may alter taste receptors and cause increased preference for super sweet foods over time. This could potentially increase cravings for sugary foods.

Animal studies suggest that diets high in simple sugars may stimulate reward and pleasure centers in the brain. This could theoretically amplify sugar cravings.

However, research has not confirmed that fructose or glucose specifically contribute to sweet food addiction in humans. More studies are needed on how taste preferences develop.


Based on current nutrition science, cane sugar and fruit sugar have similar effects on blood sugar, dental health, and calories. But the fiber, antioxidants and nutrients in whole fruits offer additional benefits for health.

While all sugars should be consumed in moderation, whole fruits are preferable for their nutrition and health protective effects. Limiting processed foods and beverages made with added cane sugar can help reduce excess sugar intake.

Overall, fruit sugar from whole food sources does not appear to be any worse than refined cane sugar. Focusing on getting fructose naturally from fruits rather than added sugars is ideal for nutrition and wellness.