The jury has spoken: Americans are guilty of consuming too much added sugar. The average adult in America consumes approximately 22 teaspoons of added sugars daily. This includes sugar from sources that consumers believe are healthy. When compared to expert recommendations, these numbers are shockingly high. The World Health Organization and the American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (about 100 calories) a day from added sugars for most women, or 9 teaspoons (about 150 calories) per day for most men. This equates to roughly five to ten percent of total calorie intake. Therefore, we must be mindful of hidden sugar in food. So how do we find it?
It seems like every decade has a new food villain to demonize, such as fats in the ’90s, or carbs in recent years. Today, many health experts agree that limiting your sugar intake can help protect against chronic diseases and obesity. Major sources of hidden sugars include processed foods and beverages. Added sugars in these foods metabolize much differently than naturally occurring sugars like those found in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Consuming too many added sugars has been linked to health issues like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, cognitive decline, impaired immune function, mood disorders, some cancers and even skin conditions.
Foods with Hidden Sugar
It’s totally fine to indulge in something sweet on occasion, but it’s another thing to indulge at almost every meal and snack without even realizing it. Unfortunately, hidden sugar is lurking everywhere you turn, even in foods you thought were healthy. Here are some easy ways to spot the added sugars found in everyday food items so you are better equipped to make healthy decisions.
Beware of “Instant” or Foods from a Package
As convenient as they may be, instant products like packaged oatmeal and frozen dinners are not as healthy as they appear. Just one package of instant oatmeal can contain a whopping 14 grams of added sugar, and that’s before you add anything to it! You’re much better off spending a little more time to cook up some steel-cut or old-fashioned rolled oats and then add some berries, banana slices, or nuts for a more balanced meal. Also, ditch those frozen dinners that contain all sorts of ingredients that you cannot pronounce, including hidden sources of added sugar. Your body has a tough time digesting all of those additives and they are typically very high in sodium.
Sweetened Yogurt and Other Dairy Products
You may think you’re adding something healthy to your grocery cart by tossing in some vanilla Greek yogurt or blueberry kefir but be aware that many of these products contain an alarming amount of added sugar. They can make up more than half your daily-recommended allotment. Consuming sweetened dairy products can be counterproductive and cause blood sugar levels to spike rapidly. A better idea would be to opt for plain varieties and add fresh fruits and toppings. Even if you add a small drizzle of honey, you’ll still be better off than consuming the type that’s already flavored. This will give you control over the amount of sugar in the yogurt you eat.
Packaged Breads including Whole Grain Varieties
You might wonder, does bread have sugar in it? Just because the package of whole-grain bread is beaming with seeds sprinkled all over the top does not necessarily mean it is vitamin and mineral-packed. The majority of packaged bread, whether white or whole wheat, contains added sugars. This is completely unnecessary and is not helping with our country’s sugar problem. Be sure to look at the ingredient list and the food label to determine if the product has added sugar in it. You’re much better off choosing sprouted-grain breads, which contain more whole grains and nutrients that are better absorbed and utilized by the body. Plus, they are delicious.
Low-calories drinks including coffee, energy drinks, teas, and blended juices can all contain a fair amount of hidden sugars. Although the front of the packaging makes these products appear healthy, when you dig a little further, you may be surprised that they contain a lot of added sugar. Fortunately, if you spend a few minutes, you might be able to find a product without all the added sugars, as many companies have omitted added sugars in their products due to customer demand. Therefore, continue to speak to these companies with your wallet.
Bottled Sauces, Dressings, Condiments, and Marinades
Store-bought varieties of bottled sauces like pasta sauce, salad dressings, condiments, and marinades fill up a very large section of the grocery store and are big business. To remain shelf-stable, many additives and preservatives are needed. When you check the ingredient list, you are almost certain to find added sugars in some form. Be mindful of words such as:
- Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
- Fruit juice
- Carob syrup
- Brown sugar
- Raw sugar
- Maple syrup
- Rice syrup
- Agave nectar
- Evaporated corn syrup
- Coconut palm sugar
- Confectioners powdered sugar
All of these ingredients are metabolized as sugar in the body and have the same metabolic effects. Some, such as maple syrup or honey, are less processed but still need to be consumed in moderation.
Healthy Alternatives to Sugar
If you’re serious about cutting back on added sugars in your diet, there are some simple steps you can take to help nix the habit. By adding a small amount of natural sugar to plain foods, you can control the amount added. Additionally, by increasing the amount of healthy fats in your diet, you will help support hormone production that reduces sugar cravings. Aim to include a healthy fat with all meals and snacks, such as nuts or avocados. If you find yourself consuming a lot of added sugars from things like sauces, dressings, marinades, and smoothies, you can drastically reduce this amount by making your own. Try this balanced smoothie recipe for starters and notice if you feel satisfied and energized without all the added sugars.
Final Thoughts About Hidden Sugars
Based on the overwhelming research about the negative effects that added sugars have on the body, such as chronic diseases and obesity, isn’t it worth your time to read food labels and look for hidden sugars in the ingredient list? Knowing what words to watch out for so you can make informed decisions about your purchases are critical. Since hidden sugars are found in many products, learning how to reproduce them at home will help you cut back on hidden sugar and gain control of your intake.