An apple a day keeps the doctor away, as the saying goes, but some fruits have a bad reputation, mostly because of sugar content. Sugar is in everything, and there are plenty of reasons to avoid the stuff. So the idea of unhealthy fruit seems like nature's evil joke, tricking us into thinking we're being healthy when really, we're downing tablespoons of sugar.
But don't swear off nature's dessert just yet. "When it comes to fruits, all provide at least some nutritional benefits so none should be considered 'unhealthy,'" says Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, and CEO of NY Nutrition Group. "However, some provide more quick-digesting and blood-sugar spiking sugar than others."
"It's important to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables for optimal health, but some fruits are dense with sugar and lack fiber," says Paula Simpson, RNCP. "These types of fruits are considered 'high glycemic,' meaning they are rapidly digested, causing quick spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. This hill-and-valley response can increase risks for insulin resistance, lethargy, sugar cravings (due to unbalanced blood sugar levels), and weight gain over the long term."
All nutritionists we surveyed agreed that berries and apples are the best fruits: one raspberry or blueberry has roughly one calorie, and apples and berries (blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries) have high fiber content, which ticks off the boxes for optimal digestion and healthy blood glucose levels.
Take a look at the most sugar-laden fruits, ahead.
Simpson says that lychees have 29 grams of sugar in one cup, which is more than a can of Red Bull, but only two and a half grams of fiber. Fruits that provide less than two and a half grams of fiber per serving are considered low in fiber.
According to nutritionist Jenny Champion, MS, RD, CDE, "Perhaps mangos are synonymous with tropical vacations (and splurging!) for a reason: one cup has almost 23 grams of sugar—the same as a bag of Sour Patch Kids." It's worth noting that not all sugar is created equal. "While the primary sugar in fruit is from fructose, these sweet-tasting plant foods also have another simple sugar, sucrose. Fructose does not immediately impact blood glucose levels, as it is first shunted to the liver, but sucrose can," notes Moscovitz.
Bananas are a great grab-and-go option when you're feeling healthy, but in reality, they're also 25 percent sugar, according to Daryl Gioffre, MD. Moskovitz says that while they're a good source of potassium and other micronutrients, "there are many other fruits that offer so much more, such as blueberries and raspberries." They're not bad for you, but you shouldn't be using them as a meal replacement very often.
"Focus on eating a variety of fruit, along with plenty of veggies, whole grains, fats, and lean proteins for a balanced diet that is not excessive, or deficient in anything essential," says Moskovitz.
According to Simpson, one small fig has eight grams of sugar and only one gram of fiber—which means they might be great on a charcuterie board, but maybe not so great for our blood glucose levels. Eat these in moderation. "That said," adds Moscovitz, "the actual blood sugar impact all depends on individual response, energy demands, and what else you're eating at the time."
Brooke Alpert, MS, RD, CDN, says that it's easy to overeat cherries, and at roughly 18 grams of sugar in one cup, that can add up quickly. However, according to Moskovitz, "all fruits can have a seat at your table and variety is the healthiest approach when picking and choosing fruits. Although some might have more sugar, it is all-natural, and should not be feared.
We prefer our grapes in wine form, but popping them as a snack seems healthy enough. According to Champion, though, "The suggested serving size for grapes is 17. When is the last time you stopped at 17 grapes? Exactly. The other problem? They're not doing your daily fiber goals any favors with less than one gram per serving." Turns out, one cup of grapes has 15 grams of sugar—yikes. "Berries have more fiber than grapes. However, grapes are also a great source of inflammation-fighting polyphenols and immune-boosting vitamin C, and bone-building K," notes Moskovitz.
Maria Bella, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Top Balance Nutrition, says pineapple is high in sugar (16 grams in one cup, to be exact) and calories, but it also has manganese, which is necessary for controlling blood sugar. In other words, pineapple is a bit of a give-and-take, so it's best to limit your servings, but of all the things on this list, it's probably the best.
Fat content can also be an issue with fruits. Says Bella, "Not too many people think of coconut as a fruit, but it is a fruit of the coconut palm tree. Coconut flesh is very high in calories and fat. I would be cautious with the amount consumed, especially if you are watching your weight." Luckily, you don't often see people eating coconut as more than a garnish.
"Dried fruit might have less water than their fresh counterparts but that doesn't mean they are less healthy," says Moskovitz. "Dried fruit like raisins, prunes, and apricots are still fiber-filled, rich in antioxidants, and vitamins like vitamin C, and potassium." What you need to watch out for are dried fruits with added, unnatural sugars.
Keeping this all in mind, know that sugar-heavy fruits aren't the enemy. It's all about moderation. Plus, they still provide vital nutrients and necessary carbs that don't make them as abysmal as, say, a can of soda or a piece of candy. Says Bella, "Carbohydrates are an important part of our diet—especially those of us who are highly active. A cup of pineapple with a cup of kefir or reduced-fat yogurt or one slice of whole-wheat bread topped with natural peanut butter and half a banana can make a good pre-workout snack.
"In order to get all the benefits without overdoing it on calories and carbs, mix and match the types of fruits you consume and spread out your fruit intake throughout the day, always pairing it with a source of protein and healthy fat (which curb hunger), and try to have six colors of total produce daily, shifting the focus on abundance instead of restriction."
Quotes have been edited for content.
Dreher ML. Whole fruits and fruit fiber emerging health effects. Nutrients. 2018;10(12):1833. doi:10.3390/nu10121833
SNAP-Ed Connection U.S. Department of Agriculture. Grapes.
Horning KJ, Caito SW, Tipps KG, Bowman AB, Aschner M. Manganese is essential for neuronal health. Annu Rev Nutr. 2015;35:71-108. doi:10.1146/annurev-nutr-071714-034419