Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Paleo Basics: How Much Sugar in Wild Fruits?

I frequently see the claim that wild fruits have less sugar than cultivated varieties.  It must sound reasonable to those who state it, but what does the evidence show?

In "Australian Aboriginal plant foods: a consideration of their nutritional composition and health implications" Brand-Miller and Holt discuss the carbohydrate contents of wild fruits consumed by Australian Aborigines and report:
"The average nutrient analysis of all the dried AA [Australian Aborigine] fruits in Table 1 (n = 7) shows that they are high in carbohydrate (59 %, v. 65 % in cultivated sultanas and raisins), and contain moderate amounts of protein (8 %) and fat (4 %) depending on the state of desiccation."

They also report:
"The average nutrient composition of all the fruit samples analysed (n = 334) is shown in Table 1 (macronutrients) and Table 2 (micronutrients). On first inspection they appear to be a little higher in protein (2 v. 1 %) and fat (1 v. 0 %) compared with the average of 17 types of cultivated western fruits. These small differences could be explained in large part by the lower water content of the wild foods (72 v. 85 % in cultivated foods). 
"Native fruits also appear to be twice as high in both carbohydrate (21 v. 9 %) and fibre (8 v. 3 %). However, because the methods used are not ideal (see above), the carbohydrate is probably an overestimate and the fibre an underestimate."

So analyses show that wild fruits have, in the first comparison, about the same sugar content as cultivated varieties, and in the second comparison, at least as much sugar, probably more, and up to twice as much, as cultivated.  Neither analysis showed them to have significantly less carbohydrate.


Melissa said...

Yeah, I think this claim has been treated a biblical because most Americans don't gather wild foods. In Sweden I gathered tons of wild fruit. Wild strawberries are a great example of a fruit that is clearly undomesticated, but tastes like candy!

Thomas said...

Awesome-I love that my post seemed sparked another "perspective" post (even though it was due to my ignorance). Thanks for the info. Keep up the good work.

Miki said...

Thanks for the information.I find This blog to be one of the most informative and thought provoking blogs in the paleo blogospher.
It seems like the only reason for moderation in fruit consumption remains seasonal availability. Also I guess there could be animals better equipped to compete with human over fruits (chimpanzee?)so the availability, even in season, could not have been unlimited.

Tom Garnett said...

Thank you for investigating this issue and finding these citations to the Australian aboriginal diet. A few counter-examples:
Cultivated high-bush blueberries are far sweeter than wild low bush blueberries (swamp berries).
Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) not sweet – compare with most cultivated berries.
Blackberries that have gone wild. Across New England one can find black berry vines that have not been cultivated for decades or are the result of new strands from animal dispersion. Compare with store-bought cultivated black berries – far less sweet.

Flowerdew Onehundred said...

I eat wild wineberries from my yard every year, and they are just as sweet, maybe sweeter than their closest supermarket equivalent - the raspberry.

Each raspberry is heavier (and wetter) than a wild berry, but the taste is less intense.

The wineberries on my property are fully wild - there are, to the best of my knowledge, no culinary hybrids of wineberries and these have been evolving away from any *possible* commercial cultivations for 10-15 years, at a minimum.


Ryan Koch @ Health Matters to Me said...

Not only can wild fruit be very rich in carbohydrate in their whole form, they can also be traditionally processed to be an even more concentrated form of fruit sugar. The Tohono O'odham of southern Arizona, for example, made a very sweet, dense syrup from saguaro cactus fruits. These fruits are incredibly abundant a few months out of the year, but when cooked into syrup can last until the next harvest. Tasty stuff, too!

Don said...

Plants produce fruits to entice animals to disperse their seeds.

Therefore it is in the plant's interest to make the fruit as tasty as possible.

Fruits with high fructose content and high caloric concentration would be tastier and thus attract more animals and thus get dispersed more than fruits with low fructose content and etc..

If the fruit made you sick, you would not go back for more...that plant would have less seed dispersal and thus less progeny than the plant with non-toxic, highly tasty fruits. Thus, it is in the plant's interest to produce non-toxic fruits (containing toxic seeds).

Point: High fructose content fruit is not a human invention.

Meanwhile, animals that use fruits and leave the seeds get the pigments, potassium, calories, etc. This is not fruits vs. animals. It is a win-win.

Don said...


Do the cultivated fruits have more sugar because we cultivate them, or did we choose to cultivate them because they have more sugar?

I try to keep in mind that what the foods we cultivate came from the pool of wild foods. I feel inclined to believe that the first cultivators chose the sweetest fruits for cultivation, and left the less sweet ones go wild. Humans would naturally select the tastiest ones for their gardens, not the less tasty ones. So I think that they are cultivated because they already had more sugar, not that they have more sugar only because we cultivated them.

Tom Garnett said...

All the comments are welcome data points offered in a non-confrontational manner. This is the way Internet discussion _should_ go but so rarely do. Thanks to all.

Aaron said...

Don, in terms of fruit being there for humans and animals to eat -- what about persons who have problems with salicylates? There are even other compounds in fruit that individuals may have problems with (like solanine). Is there any way you know of to help our bodies process compounds (like salicylates) if you have a slight problem with them?

EL 66K said...

Aaron, for that, I would look first at the thyroid, or the hormonal state of the person. Emma from "plants poisons and rotten stuff" was supossedly very intolerant to a bunch of natural food chemicals, including the infamous sacylates, but she was hypothyroid, and now that she has treatment the issue seems to be going away.

Neonomide said...

Very informative post!

I think you may like this:

"Compared to animals eating only rat chow, rats on a diet rich in high-fructose corn syrup showed characteristic signs of a dangerous condition known in humans as the metabolic syndrome, including abnormal weight gain, significant increases in circulating triglycerides and augmented fat deposition, especially visceral fat around the belly. Male rats in particular ballooned in size: Animals with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained 48 percent more weight than those eating a normal diet.

"These rats aren't just getting fat; they're demonstrating characteristics of obesity, including substantial increases in abdominal fat and circulating triglycerides," said Princeton graduate student Miriam Bocarsly. "In humans, these same characteristics are known risk factors for high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cancer and diabetes.
- -
the typical high-fructose corn syrup used in this study features a slightly imbalanced ratio, containing 55 percent fructose and 42 percent glucose. Larger sugar molecules called higher saccharides make up the remaining 3 percent of the sweetener. Second, as a result of the manufacturing process for high-fructose corn syrup, the fructose molecules in the sweetener are free and unbound, ready for absorption and utilization. In contrast, every fructose molecule in sucrose that comes from cane sugar or beet sugar is bound to a corresponding glucose molecule and must go through an extra metabolic step before it can be utilized. "

Sorry for a lengthy quote, but I think this study should be dissected through. I don't know when the fulltext will be out.

Don said...


Thanks for that link. A quote from the page:

"The rats in the Princeton study became obese by drinking high-fructose corn syrup, but not by drinking sucrose. The critical differences in appetite, metabolism and gene expression that underlie this phenomenon are yet to be discovered, but may relate to the fact that excess fructose is being metabolized to produce fat, while glucose is largely being processed for energy or stored as a carbohydrate, called glycogen, in the liver and muscles."

So the study showed that HFCS acts differently from natural sucrose. I could not find on that page a report of what percent of the rats' diets consisted of HFCS, nor any link to the published research report to dissect.

Christoph said...

Having lived off the land in one part of the world for a time (Vancouver Island, Canada) I can attest that, yes, wild fruits are sweet.

In fact, the finest fruit I've ever had was a relative of a raspberry called a thimbleberry based on its appearance. Yummy!

Blackberries and salmon berries were plentiful too, in summer.

That said... they were smaller than many modern fruits. Gathering them was pricklier, if not vastly harder. And they were only available for a portion of the year... during which you had to compete with the bears to eat them.

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