I’m sure you’ve seen the memo: Too much refined sugar does a body bad, supplying empty calories and contributing to weight gain, high triglyceride levels, and a slew of other health issues.
You probably also know the obvious solutions to cut back on sugar: skip the soda, avoid the cookies and ice cream. And that’s a great start.
But turns out, added sugar hides in places a lot less obvious than sweets. Places you might even think are healthy—like low-fat yogurt, reduced-calorie salad dressings, and all-natural oatmeal.
And this means that, even when we’re trying to avoid sugar, we’re eating way too much. On average, Americans consume 22 teaspoons a day (that’s 88 grams), more than double the recommended daily value by the USDA based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
So if you want to lighten up on the sweet stuff, it’s time to get a bit more strategic. Here’s what you really need to know about added sugar.
Look Past the Packaging
Foods and beverages with claims like “whole grain,” “fat-free,” “100% juice,” “organic,” “added fiber,” or “all-natural” seem like healthy choices. And brand names like Weight Watchers and Skinny Cow sound like they should be low in sugar and good for weight loss.
But just because a product has nutritional benefits slapped on its package doesn’t mean it’s not also packed with sugar.
For example, a 6 oz. fruit-on-the-bottom all-natural cherry Dannon yogurt contains a whopping 24 grams of sugar (6 teaspoons!). A ¾ cup serving of “whole grain” apple cinnamon cheerios contains 10 grams of sugar. And “healthy” drinks are often the worst offenders: a 16 oz. Strawberry Surfrider Jamba Juice has a whopping 69 grams!
So to get the real scoop on anything you buy, don’t just look at the buzzwords on the packaging—find the nutritional label and check out the sugar. You might be surprised.
Check out the Type
In addition to the total amount of sugar on the label, you’ll want to take a look at the type of sugar in a product. Manufacturers aren’t required to differentiate between naturally occurring sugars, like those in milk (lactose) or fruit (fructose), and added sweeteners like refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup (which is actually close to 50% glucose).
For example, a cup of frozen blackberries contains 16 grams of sugar, but that’s from naturally occuring fructose—plus, you get phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, too. On the other hand, some fruit sorbets contain less sugar, but are mostly made of refined sugar, corn syrup, and juice concentrate. So it’s just as important to take a look at the ingredient list as it is the label.
What’s in a Name?
Cake, cookies, and candy are obviously loaded with sugar, and you’ll see it right up front on their ingredient list. But, sugar now has so many other names and variations that it’s not always so easy to identity.
For example, a single one-cup serving of ketchup has nearly 40 grams of added sugar labeled as high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup; reduced-calorie salad dressings serve up 58 grams labeled as corn syrup and maltodextrin; and one granola bar has 11 grams of sugar labeled as brown rice syrup, glucose syrup, honey, fruit juice concentrate, molasses, and more.
So when you’re scanning an ingredient label, don’t just look for sugar—look out for these sugar-substitutes as well:
- high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- corn sweetener
- brown rice syrup
- maple syrup
- barley malt
- evaporated cane juice
- fruit juice concentrate
- sucrose, glucose, fructose, dextrose, galactose, and lactose (anything ending in ose)
What’s even more surprising is that sugar often shows up more than once on the same list, using a different name. For example, the first three ingredients in popular organic and vegan “natural energy” Cliff bars are organic brown rice syrup, followed by malt extract and organic evaporated cane (listed twice). It all adds up to 21 grams of sugar—and the word “sugar” is never even mentioned!
Making the Right Choices
So, does this mean yogurt is off-limits and you should forever avoid indulging in your favorite breakfast cereal?
No, certainly not. But making small changes, like opting for plain yogurt or cereal and adding your own fruit, swapping your salad dressing for a homemade blend of oil and vinegar, or cutting back on processed foods, can make a huge impact on your nutrition.
But the most important change to make is this: Get informed about what you’re eating. Because only then can you really make healthier choices.
Photo courtesy of Suat Eman.