How Sweet It Is: The Truth About Hidden Sugar in Your Food

Many people consider sugary foods like soda pop, candy, cakes, chocolate and other desserts “junk food”. We all know those treats aren’t necessarily good for us – eating sugary treats can cause cavities, but increasing evidence suggests that diets which are lower in added sugars are associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes. Added sugar in our diets, isn’t necessarily a bad thing (there’s a lot of misinformation out there about sugar being toxic…), but Americans are eating and drinking way too much sugar (much more than 30 years ago).

How much sugar are we really eating?

According to the 2015 Dietary Guideline for Americans, added sugars account for an average of 270 calories per day in an American’s diet, most of which come from beverages, then from snacks and sweets such as cakes, pies, cookies, etc. There are many recommendations for how much sugar should be included in your diet, but the 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommended that Americans should aim for 10% or less of their calories from added sugar each day. The World Health Organization (and the American Heart Association) further reduces that recommendation to just 5% of calories (about 6 teaspoons for women, 9 teaspoons for men) for further health benefits. These recommendations for teaspoons or calories of sugar go lower as calorie needs decrease, so children and older adults usually need much less sugar.

While some foods contain natural sugars, such as fruit (fructose) and dairy products (lactose), other foods will have sugars added in order to sweeten them (or if you like food science, sugar can also help preserve foods and aid in giving foods a certain texture, color, etc.) but don’t really add any nutrition besides added calories.

We aren’t talking about those sometimes foods you already know are sweet, like ice cream, cake, cookies, candy and other desserts – those foods can still be part of your diet, but you probably already know they shouldn’t be part of your diet every day. We start to run into problems with weight maintenance and energy levels when our every day diet is full of added sugar (it adds up easily!), in addition to those sweet treats every once in a while.

Be Savvy About Label-Reading

Many people are surprised to find sugar on the label of their favorite foods, including foods that don’t even taste sweet or in foods that are seemingly healthy. This is how we are eating up to an average of 270 calories of added sugar per day. It’s not just a soda or cookie once in a while – it’s those foods plus all the food processed with sugar we are including in our every day diets.

On the ingredient label, sugar can be called many names: brown sugar, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, raw sugar and crystal solids, agave nectar, honey, maple syrup, barley malt, dextrose, etc. 

You can probably find one or more types of sugar on your food labels – it can be a challenge to avoid sneaky sugar in products. Some of the foods labeled as being “healthy” or “natural” may contain more than half of the recommended 6 teaspoons of added sugars, especially in foods like flavored yogurt and other dairy products, granola, cereal, oatmeal packets, peanut butter, dried fruit, flavored milk (including flavored non-dairy milks), fruit juice, and sauces.

FYI – If you’re looking at a label, 1 teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams. For reference, Honey Nut Cheerios contains 9 grams of sugar per serving, from added sugar, so over 2 teaspoons in a 3/4 cup serving. But how much is your portion? If you eat a cup and a half of that cereal, you’re up to almost 5 teaspoons of sugar…

Many other snacks contain more sugar than you thought: A popular organic “snack bar” has 44 grams of carbohydrates, of which 21 grams are “sugars” – sugars coming from dairy, fruit, or added sugar. In this case, the first ingredient on the ingredient list (meaning the bar contains the MOST of that ingredient by weight) is “organic brown rice syrup.” Down the ingredients list (highlighted below), there are 4 other types of sugar: organic cane syrup, organic dried cane syrup, dried cane syrup and barley malt extract. For a snack bar, 21 grams of sugar seems like quite a bit of sugar, and the fact that it’s organic doesn’t make very much difference to your body, honestly.

Organic Brown Rice Syrup, Organic Rolled Oats, Soy Protein Isolate, Organic Roasted Soybeans, Rice Flour, Organic Chia Seeds, Organic Cane Syrup, Organic Cranberries, Organic Dried Cane Syrup, Organic Soy Flour, Dried Strawberries, Organic Oat Fiber, Dried Cane Syrup, Organic Sunflower Oil, Organic Soybean Oil, Natural Flavors, Citric Acid, Pomegranate Powder, Salt, Barley Malt Extract, Mixed Tocopherols (Antioxidant).

To choose healthier snacks/consume less sugar, make sure to check that label – if sugar is the first or second ingredient, try to find a comparable product with less grams of sugar. Compare two items and choose the one with less sugar on the label per serving!

  • Choose plain yogurt and add your own honey/jam and fresh fruit. If you like the convenience of pre-packaged yogurts, compare brands. Some brands and flavors contain way more sugar than others, especially the fat-free flavored yogurts. Take a peek at your “light” yogurt ingredients – does it contain more than just milk, sugar, and added cultures? Does it contain thickeners, like pectin, gums, corn starch, carrageenan, or chicory root fiber? Many of the 100-calorie or light yogurts contain extra ingredients and artificial sweeteners. Choosing a 2% or full fat yogurt and adding your own sweetness will be a more satisfying snack.
  • Make your own granola bars/energy bites. This especially goes for any chocolate-coated bars and snacks – if you want a dessert, eat a dessert! Snack bars that contain chocolate or candy pieces are just glorified candy bars, even if they use artificial sweeteners.
  • Don’t drink your fruit (juice) – Eat a piece of whole fruit, instead. A whole piece of fruit has all the same sweetness as juice, but has added fiber that prevents your blood sugar from spiking so quickly. If you have a habit of drinking juice, try adding half the amount to some water or sparkling water.
  • Make your own salad dressings – the low fat dressings often contain WAY more ingredients and sugar than a vinaigrette or full-fat dressing. A homemade vinaigrette made with olive oil, vinegar and spices contains healthy fats that help you digest some of the vitamins in your salad,  without all the extra sugar and other additives/
  • Cook at home more often. Restaurant and frozen meals will often contain more sugar than if you had cooked the same meal at home.
  • Swap out your morning cereal with foods that contain less sugar. Try whole grain oatmeal with a banana and milk, or whole grain toast with scrambled eggs. A higher-protein breakfast is often more satisfying and will have you feeling less “snacky” later in the day, so try to include eggs, dairy, beans, meat, nuts and seeds at breakfast.

Want help getting started? Meet with a Registered Dietitian at the Sanford Sports Science Institute by calling 605-312-7878.

NPR ||  New Dietary Guidelines Crack Down On Sugar. But Red Meat Gets A Pass

Real Mom Nutrition || What a Day’s Worth of Sugar Really Looks Like  — Surprising!

Harvard’s “The Nutrition Source” || Added Sugar in the Diet

The Washington Post || Where People in the World Eat the Most Sugar and Fat

Today’s Dietitian || High Protein Snacking

Siggi’s || Simple Swaps and Substitutions  — Great for cooking and baking!