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Fructose vs Glucose: How They Impact Health Potential

June 17, 2021
Written by
Team NutriSense
Reviewed by
a person using finger prick method to test their glucose level

When most people think of sugar, they likely imagine the tiny crystals that make our favorite desserts taste the way they do. However, there are many different categories of sugar, and we’re going to look at two of the most prominent, fructose and glucose, and dive into what they are and how they impact our physical health.

Fructose is a type of sugar that is common in naturally occurring foods like berries, apples, and honey. Like glucose and galactose (milk sugar), fructose is made of only one sugar group called a monosaccharide. Glucose, however, is metabolized by cells throughout the body and is essential as an energy source for human life. Fructose, meanwhile, is primarily handled by the liver, where when consumed in very large doses may cause harm by depositing fat in the liver and causing changes in glucose handling and insulin responses.

What is sucrose?

sucrose in blood stream under a microscope

When a chemical bond unites glucose and fructose, they become another type of sugar called sucrose, better known as table sugar. When we eat this kind of sugar, the sucrose molecules need to be split into their component parts, fructose and glucose, before it can be absorbed. Sucrose is produced by plants, like sugarcane, and refined by crushing the plant and extracting the sugar crystals from the resulting liquid.

Sucrose is known as table sugar due to its common use as a household sweetener and consumer product. Unlike fructose and glucose, known as “monosaccharides,” which are each made of one sugar group, sucrose is a “disaccharide,” meaning two sugar groups. These exist within the broader category of “polysaccharides,” which are made of multiple sugar groups. Within the gut, sucrose is quickly split into fructose and glucose by an enzyme named sucrase, whose purpose is to free the monosaccharide subcomponents of sucrose so we can use them for energy. So, while fructose and glucose are very similar and are both monosaccharides, they have completely different metabolic pathways and are processed differently in the body.

What is fructose?

on the right part of the picture there are sweets and fast food, n the left part of the picture there are fruits, nuts, veggies, nuts and berries

As mentioned above, fructose is a naturally occurring monosaccharide that can be found in natural food products like fruits and honey. Although most people can digest fructose without any problems, it is worth mentioning that some people can have fructose intolerance and fructose malabsorption. This would cause a significant difference between digesting fructose or sucrose instead of glucose. Even for normal people, however, the western and specifically American diet is full of fructose in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as found in processed foods. HFCS is a highly concentrated form of sugar that, like all sugars, can be harmful if consumed in excess. Consumption of any form of sugar in excess can, over the long run, do damage to vital organs such as the pancreas and kidneys.

Here is a shortlist of natural sources of fructose as well as list of commonly processed foods to which HFCS is typically added:

Natural sources of fructose

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Tree sap
  • Nectars
  • Honey

Foods to which HFCS is typically added

  • Sodas
  • Candies
  • Ketchup
  • Molasses
  • Ice cream
  • Snack bars
  • Energy drinks

Today you can often find specialty products without HFCS, with artificial sweeteners, or without added sugars entirely. Different foods can use different blends of HFCS, and the most popular are made from 42% fructose (58% glucose/maltose) or 55% fructose (45% glucose/maltose), as measured by the proportion of each in terms of dry weight. For example, sucrose is a disaccharide made from glucose and fructose, so its proportion would be 50% of each.

What is the difference between fructose and glucose?

Turning towards how the body handles these sugars, the hormone insulin is responsible for transporting glucose from the blood into individual cells. Chronically high blood sugar can cause insulin resistance and other chronic conditions like diabetes. Fructose, however, is partially digested by the liver where it can be processed into glycogen, or stored glucose, and fats. The ingestion of fructose does not immediately trigger insulin release from the pancreas, so it may appear to be preferable as a sweetener in some populations. However, super-doses of fructose, as can be consumed if you drink sugary soda, for example, can overwhelm the body’s capacity to digest it. Since sucrose is made from both glucose and fructose, we can have a similar problem if large amounts of sucrose are consumed at once. So within the context of limiting your overall intake of sweeteners, it is also worth considering whether fructose and especially HFCS should be given particular scrutiny in your diet.

a doctor showing something on a tablet to a patient

Why fructose may be bad for metabolic health

While natural sources of fructose, just like natural sources of glucose, are preferable to highly processed sources, a low overall proportion of sugar in naturally occurring foods is more important than the type of sugar. For example, HFCS, which includes fructose refined from corn, is no different from table sugar because of the overall quantity of glucose that will eventually make its way into the blood. Therefore, when we talk about the consumption of HFCS, we are talking about highly refined sugar and its effects on health.

 What makes fructose so unique from a metabolic health viewpoint is that it bypasses the first metabolic step that glucose undergoes, and that first step serves as a regulatory checkpoint. So when this step gets bypassed, fructose readily gets taken up by the liver regardless of the quantities that are consumed. Therefore, diets that are high in fructose, such as the Standard American diet, can lead to excessive fatty acid synthesis in the liver. This can lead to excessive lipid accumulation in the liver, causing what is called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD reduces our insulin sensitivity, decreases glucose tolerances, and can lead to hepatic insulin resistance. 

Additionally, there may also be a role played by both lower circulating insulin and leptin in response to fructose consumption. If you have less leptin in your blood, you will be more hungry and have more difficulty controlling your appetite. So any kind of food that doesn’t cause a strong response in leptin, like many snack foods with HFCS added to them, should be first on the chopping block when looking at ways to get the most metabolic bang for your buck.

Another large review of research papers comparing fructose to other forms of sugar concluded that fructose does not cause weight gain when substituted for other sugars. In that study, the authors also conclude that fructose that constitutes excessive feeding still leads to weight gain. For most people, moderate amounts of fructose are appropriate when consumed in the form of whole foods, or a few servings of fruit per day. However, you might want to limit fructose further if you show signs of insulin resistance and you should consult your doctor about calibrating the amount of fructose in your diet. Even healthy people should limit their intake of refined sugar, including fructose and especially in the form of sucrose and HFCS.

Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense

Your blood sugar levels can significantly impact how your body feels and functions. That’s why stable blood glucose levels can be an important factor in supporting overall wellbeing.

With Nutrisense, you’ll be able to track your blood glucose levels over time using a CGM, so you can make lifestyle choices that support healthy living.

When you join the program, our team of credentialed dietitians and nutritionists are available for additional support and guidance to help you reach your goals.

Ready to take the first step? Start with our quiz to see how Nutrisense can support your health.

Click here to listen to the podcast.
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Fructose vs Glucose: How They Impact Health Potential
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The NutriSense Holiday Gift Guide: Stocking Stuffers We Love
The NutriSense Holiday Gift Guide: Stocking Stuffers We Love

Haven't finished your holiday shopping yet? Pick from this list of NutriSense-approved holiday gifts to find some great last-minute stocking stuffers for everyone on your list!

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8
min
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The NutriSense Holiday Gift Guide: Health-Focused Gifts They’ll Love
The NutriSense Holiday Gift Guide: Health-Focused Gifts They’ll Love

Still haven't bought all your holiday gifts this year? Don't worry—there's still time to find the perfect gift for everyone on your list. Read our guide for some great ideas!

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9
min
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The Link Between Inflammation and Blood Glucose
The Link Between Inflammation and Blood Glucose

Learn more about inflammation, how it affects blood glucose levels and what you can do to prevent and manage it.

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9
min
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The Health Benefits of Adding Fermented Foods to Your Diet
The Health Benefits of Adding Fermented Foods to Your Diet

Fermented foods have a range of health benefits. Read on to learn more about what they are and why you should be adding them to your diet.

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9
min
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The Health Benefits of Potatoes, Yams, and Sweet Potatoes
The Health Benefits of Potatoes, Yams, and Sweet Potatoes

Potatoes, yams, and sweet potatoes are similar in usage, but pretty distinct in taste, texture, appearance, and even nutritional content! Read on to find out more about each one.

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8
min
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The Health Benefits of Living With Pets
The Health Benefits of Living With Pets

Did you know that living with a pet can do more than just put a smile on your face? Read on to learn all the ways living with pets improves your wellbeing.

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7
min
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The Health Benefits of Cooking With Herbs and Spices
The Health Benefits of Cooking With Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices are a great way to add flavor to dishes, and also have a range of health benefits. Learn more about a few of our favorites.

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12
min
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The Health Benefits of Beans
The Health Benefits of Beans

Learn about the health benefits of beans and how they can help you live a healthier, longer life.

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6
min
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The Guide to Metabolic Diets: What Are They, Do They Work, And Who Should Try Them?
The Guide to Metabolic Diets: What Are They, Do They Work, And Who Should Try Them?

Review our guide to metabolic diets to help get a better understanding of what they are and whether they might be right for you.

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The Foods and Traditions of Kwanzaa
The Foods and Traditions of Kwanzaa

Learn about the traditions and nutrient-dense food commonly enjoyed during Kwanzaa. 

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9
min
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The Blood Sugar and Joint Pain Connection
The Blood Sugar and Joint Pain Connection

Have you ever wondered how your glucose levels might be connected to joint pain? We'll take a deep dive into this connection and share tips for reducing pain.

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10
min
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The Best Diet for Non-Diabetic Hypoglycemia
The Best Diet for Non-Diabetic Hypoglycemia

This article explores hypoglycemia in non-diabetics, how to manage symptoms through diet, and the advantages of glucose monitoring.

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6
min
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The Effect of Aging on Your Blood Glucose Levels
The Effect of Aging on Your Blood Glucose Levels

Take a look at how aging can affect your blood glucose levels.

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9
min
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The Best Diet to Increase Your Vitamin D Levels
The Best Diet to Increase Your Vitamin D Levels

Read on to learn more about vitamin D-rich foods and what you should include in your diet to make the most of this vitamin’s health benefits.

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10
min
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The Best Diet for Menstruation
The Best Diet for Menstruation

When it comes to your menstrual cycle, what you eat can significantly impact how you feel. Read on to learn more about the best foods to add to your diet to help during that time of the month.

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8
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The Benefits and Risks of Popular Ayurvedic Herbs and Spices
The Benefits and Risks of Popular Ayurvedic Herbs and Spices

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian holistic healing system that dates back over 5,000 years. In the second installment of our series on the practice, review the benefits and risks associated with popular Ayurvedic herbs and spices.

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9
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The Beginner’s Guide to the Low FODMAP Diet
The Beginner’s Guide to the Low FODMAP Diet

In this article, we break down what a low FODMAP diet looks like for beginners, and its potential benefits and drawbacks for gastrointestinal health.

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8
min
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The 6 Worst Foods for Osteoporosis
The 6 Worst Foods for Osteoporosis

When it comes to bone health, good nutrition is absolutely critical. Read on to learn what osteoporosis is and why some foods may increase your risk of or worsen the condition.