Why is fruit so much more nutritious than candy, when both are mostly sugar?
January 10, 2010 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Why is fruit so much more nutritious than candy, when both are mostly sugar?

The primary nutrient in most fruit is fructose; same goes for most sugary, non-fatty candy (e.g. gummy bears, jelly beans, gumdrops). So why is fruit considered one of the most nutritious foods, while candy is considered one of the least nutritious?

The best reasons I can think of are the following:
- Fruit doesn't have any artificial colors and ingredients (but one can find candy that uses natural ingredients)
- Fruit contains more fiber (though to be fair many fruits contain negligible quantities)

I have contemplated several other possible reasons:
- Fruits have more vitamins & minerals: sure, but what is the benefit for people who already take a multivitamin?
- Candy is sugar in a more concentrated form, making it easy to eat too much: yes, but dried fruit is just as bad in this respect.

The things I suspect but am not sure about:
- Maybe the *type* of fructose in fruits is more healthful than the type of fructose used in candy
- Maybe fruit has some other important nutrients that you can't get in a multivitamin

Pretty much the same question applies for fruit juice vs. soda.

MeFi, can you help clarify this?
posted by lunchbox to Food & Drink (39 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Compare and contrast the nutritional value for both:

Nutritional value of an apple (1 cup, raw, with skin):
Calories: 65
Total Fat: 0
Cholesterol: 0
Sodium: 0
Total Carbohydrates: 17g
Dietary Fiber: 3g
Protein: 0

Vitamin A: 1%
Vitamin C: 10%
Calcuim: 1%
Iron: 1%

Nutritional value of Snicker's Bar:
Calories: 271
Total Fat:13.6g (21% of daily recommended allowance)
Cholesterol: 2%
Sodium: 6%
Total Carbohydrates: 34.5g
Dietary Fiber: 1.3g
Protein: 4.3g

Vitamin A: 2%
Vitamin C: 0%
Calcuim: 5%
Iron: 2%

That Snicker's Bar has a lot more calories, fat and carb, besides the sugar.

Speaking as a Type II diabetic, I can tell you that an apple may briefly raise my blood sugar, but it's usually for a short while, but it'll come down quickly, but leave me full as a snack. The Snicker's bar will screw up my blood sugars for 2 to 3 hours at least and still leave me unsatisfied and throws in almost a quarter of my daily recommended fat allowance. It's just not worth it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:45 PM on January 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

Candy is sugar in a more concentrated form, making it easy to eat too much: yes, but dried fruit is just as bad in this respect.

Sure, but fresh fruit very much is not. Three Brach's Orange Slices contain the same amount of food energy as about two large oranges.

On preview: what floam said.
posted by pmdboi at 3:46 PM on January 10, 2010

I was going to say the same as floam. There is strong evidence that eating the necessary vitamins in minerals in foods is better for you than taking them in pill form. What I've read suggests that it may have something to do with the interplay between the substances in the foods eaten together and how they are digested. In fact, I've heard that some studies suggest that there are only negligible benefits from taking multivitamins. I'm not a doctor or a scientist, though. I like to hedge my bets and make sure to eat nutritious foods instead of eating junk and hoping vitamin pills work as well.
posted by ishotjr at 3:47 PM on January 10, 2010

Candy doesn't have dietary fiber.

Fruit does.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:52 PM on January 10, 2010

Alton Brown said recently that a small bite of a glazed donut and an orange - the whole thing - each have the same number of calories. But the donut provides empty calories, as does candy, while the orange provides minerals, vitamins, liquid, fiber, etc.

Also, Nthing the idea that taking a multivitamin does not free you to eat cheeseburgers and hard candies all day. It's best to get your nutrients from a healthy, balanced diet. This is the way we're made. All the science in the world hasn't been able to provide us with a balanced diet pill.
posted by cooker girl at 3:57 PM on January 10, 2010 [5 favorites]

- Maybe the *type* of fructose in fruits is more healthful than the type of fructose used in candy

Nope. Fructose is fructose.

It's not the type; it's the quantity consumed.

And I doubt you'll find candy containing as much fibre per unit of sugar as even the lowest-fibre fruit.
posted by flabdablet at 4:00 PM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also tangential to the minerals & vitamins in fruit already discussed, the body has evolved eating fruits, not candy. So when eating a fruit you're body expects the m & vs along with the sugar. When you eat candy, the m & vs are not there, so your body goes looking for them. This is why, for example, candy causes cavities. The body is looking for calcium when eating the candy, and not finding it, gets from teeth.
posted by allelopath at 4:02 PM on January 10, 2010

Gummy bears, jelly beans, gum drops and soda usually contain high amounts of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

It all comes down to over-consumption.

As with every type of food, over-consumption is not healthy (including fruit). However, due to the wide-ranging use of HFCS in pretty much everything, it is much easier for a typical person to consume more fructose/glucose than the body can normally handle. As floam said, people don't normally chuck back ten apples (although, too much concentrated fruit juice is roughly the same).

There are other benefits to eating fresh fruit (eg. fiber) which most processed foods usually lack.
posted by purephase at 4:04 PM on January 10, 2010

I also think about about it like this: Your body knows exactly how to break down and process all the ingredients in fruit with ease. It's like putting the right kind of fuel in a car - sure you might be able to function eating the crap but you'll function better if you eat the fruit.
posted by icy at 4:04 PM on January 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh, I forgot the soda part of the question. Carbonation and caffeine leach calcium from bone. Fruit juice doesn't. I would also argue that there's no real need for fruit juice. Drink water and eat fruit.
posted by cooker girl at 4:06 PM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fruits have more vitamins & minerals: sure, but what is the benefit for people who already take a multivitamin?

Multivitamins are supplements. They are to supplement your intake of vitamins and minerals from natural sources. They are not a substitute for them. They do not provide all the nutrients your body needs. They are often misused and overuse can lead to health problems.

Fruits contain loads of nutrients -- some we know about, more we discover each day -- distilled by millions of years of evolutionary process. Candy is made by a machine in a factory in China. Your question is so misinformed it is upsetting.
posted by whiskeyspider at 4:12 PM on January 10, 2010 [6 favorites]

Seconding icy a million times.

We like to think we know everything, and break things down into things we can measure, but the truth is, our bodies are far more complex than we have been able to quantify thus far, even with today's science. We were "made" to process fruit, not candy. (Made in the sense that we have spent much longer eating fruit than candy, in our history on this earth).

Fruit is nature's candy, but what a delicious, and much healthier, and whole candy it is.
posted by DeltaForce at 4:18 PM on January 10, 2010


Lack of fat


No HFCS, partially hydrogenated anything, or (if you eat organic) chemicals

Tastes worlds better 'cept maybe for chocolate

And what DeltaForce said too.
posted by bearwife at 4:22 PM on January 10, 2010

Response by poster: @Brandon Blatcher: yes, but I was referring to non-fatty candy, not things like chocolate and donuts.

Several people (e.g. allelopath) have raised interesting points about how the sugar and micronutrients are best consumed together in the form of fruit, and not separately. What is the basic scientific evidence for this?
posted by lunchbox at 4:23 PM on January 10, 2010

cooker girl: "Oh, I forgot the soda part of the question. Carbonation and caffeine leach calcium from bone. Fruit juice doesn't. I would also argue that there's no real need for fruit juice. Drink water and eat fruit."

Do you have a source on that? The tiny bit of research I did after reading your comment suggests no direction connection:

"Scientists have wondered whether the phosphoric acid in many soft drinks might damage bones, but they've looked and found 'there really isn't any evidence that carbonated beverages affect bone health,' said Dr. Michael Holick, professor of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at Boston University Medical Center." (The Boston Globe)

"To date, research examining the effects of caffeine and phosphoric acid has not provided conclusive evidence that their consumption is detrimental." (The Globe and Mail)

One theory appears to be that "carbonated drinks don't directly affect calcium balance, but rather that they are consumed in place of other beverages. Several studies have shown that people who drink more soft drinks are less likely to drink calcium-rich milk or fortified orange juice."
posted by sharkfu at 4:32 PM on January 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Of course, even fruit is more like candy than it once was -- over the millennia, we've selected fruits to be bigger, sweeter and easier to eat than the original plants from which they evolved. A big juicy orange or two may actually be more sugar, with less work, than our ancestors would have ever gotten to eat at one time. Our digestive systems evolved with that essentially being the maximum sugar dose they'd ever have to deal with, and not often at that.

Of course, evolution hasn't stopped, and our digestive systems have been evolving right along with the fruits. Certainly we seem to be able to handle today's oranges just fine, although you probably wouldn't want to eat absurd numbers of them. However, it's certain that our digestive systems haven't evolved quickly enough to be able to healthily deal with the massively concentrated sugar in candy.

Also, seconding what others have said about all the unknown goodies in plant foods. We don't know a tenth of them, so certainly most won't show up in multivitamins. We also have very little idea about their interactions, how our body processes nutrients differently depending on what else you are eating at the same time, etc etc. We just know that we stay healthy when we eat lots of fruits and veggies, and we get sick when we eat lots of candy. We suspect it's due to a lot of the various factors that have been discussed here, in some combinations, but we don't know the exact details.

Last: although sugar (fructose) may be a very prominent component of fruit by mass or volume or calories, that doesn't imply by any means that it's the most important in terms of health effects.
posted by wyzewoman at 4:32 PM on January 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Calorie density.

The larger the item of food, the more time it will take your body to process it. So you could eat 2 Oreos or instead eat a whole plate of grilled veggies, a broiled chicken breast and a potato for the same 'price' in calories so to speak.

However, because you are also eating so much more volume and fiber when you eat the healthy stuff you're getting a lot more bang for your buck. (Sorry for the mixed metaphors.)
posted by ohyouknow at 4:35 PM on January 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the clarification, sharkfu. I was reciting information I learned eons ago. I also learned that the acid in sodas is quite harmful to our teeth. I'm assuming that hasn't changed.

yes, but I was referring to non-fatty candy, not things like chocolate and donuts.

Sugar intake that isn't balanced by exercise/movement will turn into fat. Your body only needs so much before it can't do anything with the excess other than turn it into fat stores.
posted by cooker girl at 4:45 PM on January 10, 2010

Best answer: In addition to having more vitamins, phytonutrients, etc, fruit contains a lot of fiber, so the sugar within it is released into your blood stream much more slowly than if you eat, say, a donut. This means your blood sugar doesn't spike -- unless you're already insulin-resistant -- and your body has less of a problem supplying the amount of insulin needed to control it. When you eat the same amount of refined sugar, it's all readily absorbed at once and your body has to struggle more to keep up the right amount of insulin.

Also, the sugar usually found in fruit is fructose. Fructose does not directly impact your blood sugar (it does indirectly, however, and in some ways produces a worse strain on your liver because that's where fructose goes, but see my book recommendation below). Table sugar is sucrose, which contains both glucose and fructose. Glucose goes straight to your blood stream and directly raises your blood sugar. High fructose corn syrup, iirc, also contains both glucose and fructose in similar amounts to table sugar -- glucose is added to make it taste closer -- although the ratio is in favor of fructose overall -- instead of 50/50 it's something like 55/45 iirc, for whatever it matters. The two of these in combination place a higher strain on your liver than fructose alone or glucose alone, but it takes a lot more time to get into it.

As for vitamins, I can only give examples of what I have heard, so these may or may not apply to other viatmins as well: When insulin levels are elevated, B vitamins are apparently depleted more rapidly, but I have not heard any explanation of what mechanism causes this. Vitamin C is more clear-cut: it is transported around by the same insulin-system that transports glucose, but when both are present in the bloodstream glucose gets priority. That means if your insulin levels are high, vitamin C absorption is inhibited. (Interesting to note: Eskimos were studied, and they eat only meat. Vitamin C is one of the handful of things you cannot get in any significant amount from meat, but Eskimos do not get scurvy. The only laboratory tests that were able to induce scurvy -- for the purpose of studying it -- required that the test subjects ingest a fair amount of carbohydrates.)

If you're really interested in all this, reading Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes is the best thing you can do for yourself. It's not a diet book, but a science and history of nutrition book. It goes into significant detail about what goes on on the molecular level when you ingest sugar, and what studies do and do not show. You're not going to get a satisfactorily detailed answer in AskMeFi because no one will have the time, inclination, or space to get super technical about it, especially when you want studies cited. (The last fifth of Taubes book is citations and endnotes, and he addresses every major nutrition study in the last hundred years -- some even earlier -- anyone might bring up here.) And honestly, most people are just repeating what they've heard from various media outlets which, if you read Taubes's book, you will see routinely exaggerate and misrepresent studies, not to mention some of the scientists who conduct the studies will overreach to find ways to argue in that a study that actually disproves their theory somehow proves it instead. You can find citations for everything mentioned here in Taubes's book, plus a lot more information you will probably find interesting.
posted by Nattie at 4:46 PM on January 10, 2010 [6 favorites]

Also, to reply to your reply: fat content has nothing to do with why fruit is a better choice than candy. The things I said above apply just as much to Jolly Ranchers or popsicles as they do to donuts. Fat is irrelevant to the insulin response.
posted by Nattie at 4:47 PM on January 10, 2010

This is why, for example, candy causes cavities. The body is looking for calcium when eating the candy, and not finding it, gets from teeth.

Papers, please.
posted by Sallyfur at 4:48 PM on January 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think for candy versus fruit, water also plays a large part. You just feel fuller after eating fruit, and so you eat it in more moderation. For example, I tried to prove your argument (candy is as good for you as fruit). I picked what I thought would be most comparable:

Gummy bears
Calories: 87
Total fat: 0 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Sodium: 10 mg
Total carbs: 21.8 g (dietary fiber <0> Protein: 0 g
Calcium: 0.7 mg
Potassium: 1.1 mg

Calories: 62
Total fat: 0 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Sodium: 2 mg
Total carbs: 16 g (dietary fiber 1 g; sugars 15 g)
Protein: 1 g
Vitamin A: 2%
Vitamin C: 6%
Calcium: 1%
Iron: 1%

Here's the kicker: that's for 1 cup of grapes, or 10 tiny gummy bears! So I guess you could argue, but what if you chose candy plus a vitamin pill plus water... but then we aren't comparing candy to fruit.
posted by Houstonian at 5:00 PM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

@Brandon Blatcher: yes, but I was referring to non-fatty candy, not things like chocolate and donuts.

Sorry, missed that bit!

Anyway, look at the nutritional value of fat free vine licorice:

Serving size of 2 pieces:

Calories 140
Total Carbs: 34 g

Two pieces of licorice have twice carbs and calories than a cup of apples. People rarely eat just two pieces because they aren't filling (possibly due to lack of fiber?). What it boils down to is that for the amount of sugar and carbs that non fatty candy gives, it doesn't offer anything that sates hunger, which causes people to eat more of it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:02 PM on January 10, 2010

Best answer: There are a few things involved here. First, you need to consider how much you're eating is actually going to get absorbed by your body, also known as bioavailability. As an example, calcium is absorbed best when combined with acidic, low-fat foods (although your body is also stimulated to absorb calcium in the presence of lactose and casein phosphopeptides). Per calorie this makes an orange a great source of calcium, milk a decent source, and spinach an okay source. If you say, took a calcium supplement with your morning eggs and bacon and ate vitamin fortified gummi bears later for a snack, you may be eating the same total macro and micronutrients as a more healthy meal, but you may not be absorbing all of it. Keep in mind this can go in the other direction as well -- fiber you find in fruit binds to nutrients as well as waste products, but scientists still think you end up ahead.

Another issue is the acid and fiber you usually find in fruit slow the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream, that is, they have a lower glycemic index. Are you old enough to remember the distinction people made between complex and simple carbohydrates? Supposedly, potatoes were better for you than fruit because their sugars are combined into long chains that took longer to digest, as opposed to fruit that had mostly disaccharides like fructose and sucrose. It turns out that doesn't matter all that much -- your body is pretty fast at breaking down chains of carbohydrates but is slower to break down carbohydrates in the presence of acid and fiber, which most fruits contain in abundance. The benefits of not having a blood sugar spike are pretty easily accessible; just google for glycemic index.

On preview, it seems like everyone covered the "diversity of nutrients" idea, but if you're looking for more information Micheal Pollen is usually the go-to author for that. The example he usually pulls out is beta carotene -- we've studied that the most, but there are about 50 different kinds of carotene. Who's to say what effect those have in synergy?
posted by ayerarcturus at 5:07 PM on January 10, 2010

So you could eat 2 Oreos or instead eat a whole plate of grilled veggies, a broiled chicken breast and a potato for the same 'price' in calories so to speak.

Not that it changes your overall point, but this example is wrong, isn't it? The Internet seems to indicate that two Oreos is somewhere between 100 and 150 calories. A potato alone is worth about that much or significantly more, depending on the size, never mind the chicken and veggies. Just wanted to clear that up.
posted by threeants at 5:10 PM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Citrus and certain berries contain flavonoids, which seem to keep cropping up in studies these last few years on the positive benefits of fruits. Not knowledgeable or awake enough to cite a bunch, but there are lots of such studies out there for the searching.

Some plant alkaloids have been cited for their health benefits, such as burberry root. The only fruit one that I've read about with some studied benefit is the Noni fruit.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 5:29 PM on January 10, 2010

threeants, I was pulling from old Weight Watchers memories, so you're probably right. However, even if my example isn't 100% correct in terms of calories, it is true under the WW points system (which takes into account fat content and fiber in calculating each food's overall worth).
posted by ohyouknow at 5:39 PM on January 10, 2010

What Nattie said is really important. Your body breaks down the sugar in candy right away, which messes up your bloodsugar and can confuse you about how hungry you actually are. Consuming fiber along with the sugar isn't just good because fiber is good for its own sake. It's also good because the fiber slows down your absorption of the sugar.
posted by bingo at 5:43 PM on January 10, 2010

You might be interested in this YouTube video of a lecture by Robert H. Lustig, a professor of pediatrics in the division of endocrinology at UCSF, entitled "The Hazards of Sugar." The whole lecture takes about an hour, and includes quite a bit of biochemistry towards the middle that you can probably skip (I found it fascinating). It seems to be pretty hard science, but Lustig is clearly speaking as an advocate when he says things like "Fructose is a poison." As I understand his arguments, the answer to your question would go like this.: 1) Sucrose and High Fructose Corn Syrup are both incredibly bad for us and we're consuming amazing quantities of it; 2) Fruit juice is just as bad for us as soda pop; 3) on the other hand, fruit is better for you than candy is because it contains a large amount of fiber that takes up space along with that fructose. As a result, you'd get full long before you could eat enough oranges to gain lots of weight.

It's a really interesting video. I don't know enough about nutrition to know how credible it is, but I found it well worth the time to watch.
posted by centerweight at 5:59 PM on January 10, 2010

More fiber, lower energy density, more water, less sodium, less fat.
posted by zippy at 8:13 PM on January 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to all for the insightful replies. Special thanks to Nattie for the detailed scientific explanation.
posted by lunchbox at 1:19 AM on January 11, 2010

Agreeing with others that energy density is the big thing here.

Consider a large apple. It has 116 kcal, but weighs 223g: that's about half a pound.

So, it's hard to make yourself fat by sitting on the sofa and munching apples. How many apples can you eat? Eat four large apples and you've likely gulped down enough food that you won't be hungry for hours. But you've only eaten 464 kcal. Now an average man burns 2,500 per day; an average woman 2,000. By the time you're hungry enough for another meal, you'll have burned off a lot of it anyway.

Compare that to a Snickers bar. That has 271 kcal, but weighs only 57g (0.13 lbs or 2 ounces). If you ate Snickers bars to the weight of those four apples, you'd have eaten 15 Snickers, and consumed 4,065 kcal. So that session alone would make you gain weight that day.

Basically the problem is with the question. A Snickers bar is about 51% sugar by weight, but an apple only 10%. Candy is mostly sugar, but fruit isn't. Even though that 10% sounds like a lot, it really isn't that big a deal: your body can burn it off in the quantities your stomach can supply.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:21 AM on January 11, 2010

Consuming 300 calories in gumdrops (20 gumdrops) and 300 calories in oranges (about 4 small oranges) probably won't make much difference in your overall health. But that's assuming an otherwise healthy diet where the calories in the gumdrops replace the calories in the oranges. Obviously, eating 4 oranges over the course of a day is probably going to make you eat less, and will certainly provide more vitamins and fiber, whereas 20 gumdrops doesn't give you much of anything except calories. But I'd imagine the diet of a person that regularly eats gumdrops is going to be worse than someone who eats 4 oranges a day.
posted by electroboy at 7:14 AM on January 11, 2010

Several people (e.g. allelopath) have raised interesting points about how the sugar and micronutrients are best consumed together in the form of fruit, and not separately. What is the basic scientific evidence for this?

Consider the possibility that we instinctively know that this is true even in the absence of "scientific evidence." Humans have survived for a long time and known how to eat based on instinct rather than "scientific evidence." See Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food. Some of your statements here ("what is the benefit for people who already take a multivitamin?") suggest you've come under the spell of "nutritionism," as Pollan puts it. You might feel it's "scientific" to view foods as just the sum of their nutrients, but this assumption is based on false premises.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:20 PM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pollan commits the appeal to nature fallacy in his writings on nutritionism. He's a little too much of a romantic about the pastoral ideal and yeoman farmers. For most of human history, getting enough food was a bigger problem than getting all the right kinds of food. Now that we live in times of relative abundance, different problems have arisen. It doesn't prove that the diets of our ancestors were better, just that the foods (in some combination of type and amount) we're eating may not be suited to our current lifestyles.
posted by electroboy at 3:06 PM on January 11, 2010

You assertion that scientific evidence is unnecessary because something seems intuitive to you is an obvious logical fallacy, I do hope you realize.

In order to aptly criticize my comment as a "fallacy," you'd need to first be able to accurately restate what I said. I didn't say, and I don't believe, that scientific evidence is unnecessary as long as something seems intuitive to me.

I implore everyone reading this to read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food -- he makes his case better than I can.

BTW, as a vegetarian of almost 20 years, I'm not predisposed to want to promote the idea that whatever we evolved to do is what we should do. I am aware of the naturalistic fallacy, but I'm also aware of scientism -- the dogma that we can answer all important questions through science. "Science" can tell us which nutrients are in which foods, but it can't tell us how to eat right. This is isn't anti-science; it's a recognition that humans aren't omniscient beings.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:08 PM on January 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

… and why is that? Why would you have to be omniscient beings to be able to reverse engineer the functions of the human body and make predictions (which can be tested) about what ought to be eaten?

See Chapter 9, "Bad Science," of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food (pp. 61-78).
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:57 PM on January 11, 2010

Also, I'm making no claims about "science" in general. We've already gotten pretty far afield from what the OP is asking for even without turning the discussion to medicine and so on. I do think it should be possible to criticize the effectiveness of science in certain areas without being attacked as broadly anti-science. To assume that science must have all the answers on all subjects is simply dogmatism, which, needless to say, is unscientific.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:06 PM on January 11, 2010

If you scroll down to "Bad Science" here there's a basic outline of Pollan's argument, although I'm not sure it's identical to the one in In Defense of Food.
posted by electroboy at 12:57 PM on January 12, 2010

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