After coming across this surprising ‘fact’ about lemons and strawberries, I thought I just had to write about it. According to an internet claim, lemons contain more sugar than strawberries! Now, isn’t that shocking? Lemons are so sour you’d think they contained no sugar at all, and yet they contain more sugar than sweet strawberries.
Is it true? What do you think? Go with your gut on this one, folks. It’s not true. It’s just one of those little factoids that people want to believe because it subverts our expectations and makes life more interesting. And, wellness experts and food fear alarmists can use it as a counter to the supposed amazing health benefits of lemon juice by saying, nope, lemons contain sugar so they are bad for you and can’t possibly be healthy. Whatever works to get you noticed!
It’s so easy to verify these kinds of claims. You can go to the USDA Food Composition database and do a search for lemons and strawberries, for example. This will get you a number of different results but in all of them, you will find that strawberries indeed contain more sugar than lemons, just as you would have expected before coming across this ‘astounding nutrition fact.’ Or, you can simply type in ‘lemon nutrition’ and ‘strawberries nutrition’ to Google and you will get a breakdown of both via Wikipedia. You can check different amounts to compare, but checking for a 100-gram amount for both, we get 2.5 grams sugar for lemons and 4.9 grams of sugars for strawberries, almost 5 grams. That’s a whole lot more sugar in strawberries.
Now, we could ask whether the information for lemons includes the peel, but even so, you can surmise that strawberries will always contain more sugar than lemons. It is probably possible to come up with a way to make it appear as if lemons have more sugar by comparing, perhaps, an amount of strawberries based on volume to an amount of lemon based on weight. A look through some of the articles on this topic, however, revealed that some are conflating total carbohydrates with ‘sugars’ finding that lemons contain 9 grams carbohydrate per 100 grams and strawberries contain 8 grams.
All carbohydrates are not sugars, and some of that extra carbohydrate in lemons is fiber. Strawberries contain 2 grams of dietary fiber per 100 grams while lemons contain 2.8 grams. Taking the math a bit further, we find 3.7 grams of complex carbohydrates (not sugars) in lemons and 1.1 in strawberries. So, while it is true that lemons contain more carbohydrates than strawberries, they do not contain more simple sugars.
However, here is where we have to stop using 100-gram amounts! In reality, while it is technically true that lemons contain more complex carbohydrates (starches) than strawberries, another reason why they are not as sweet, we would never eat 100 grams of lemon or even one cup of lemon. We typically use comparatively small amounts of lemon juice in food or in drinks and, in the case of drinks, we usually add a lot of sugar to make them palatable. For example, it takes about 3 to 4 tablespoons of lemon juice to make a glass of lemon juice. Assuming you thoroughly squeeze two lemons to get that juice (it could be less), there is still no comparison to, say, a serving of strawberries, at around 150 grams. A serving of lemon is typically considered one fruit but even two doesn’t come close to a serving of strawberries.
So, to make a case about the actual amount of carbohydrates or sugars in lemon on a per gram basis compared to any fruit is a red herring. It is important to consider the amounts typically consumed when making such comparisons. Regardless, the primary claim, that lemons contain more sugar, is not true.
But, the reason I chose to write this up is not that I was surprised the claim existed. Heck, I’m not even interested in why it got started. What I have to wonder is why most people do not instantly question why lemons are being compared particularly to strawberries. Why not some other sweet fruit? My point is that the very specific nature of the claim points to its falsehood. A general claim like ‘lemons contain more sugar than many sweet-tasting fruits’ should actually be more believable. And this should be a good clue for you when you come across similar claims in the future. The more specific (and therefore arbitrary?) the claim, the less likely it is grounded in truth. Choosing a sweet-tasting fruit with which to compare lemons makes the claim more surprising and thus makes the headlines more likely to be clicked on and shared.