Headline after headline tells us that too much sugar is doing our health no favours. But when it comes to excess sugar intake, it’s usually added sugar that’s the real issue.
After all, natural sugars – the ones found in whole, unprocessed foods, including the fructose in fruit or lactose in dairy – supply the body with needed energy in appropriate amounts, and they are often found alongside nutrients such as fibre or protein.
“Added sugars, though, are digested rapidly and cause a quick rise in blood sugar, which creates a cascade of metabolically damaging reactions,” explains Julie Upton, RD, who is based in Marin County, California.
“High intakes of added sugars can lead to fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, systemic inflammation, overweight and obesity.”
While U.S. dietary guidelines recommend limiting added sugars to no more than 10 percent of daily calories, research shows that 3 out of 4 people eat more than that.
If you don’t add sugar to food, you may think you’re in the clear, but several foods that fall outside of the dessert category can be surprisingly high in added sugar.
Processed foods, many of which are not even sweet, account for 90 percent of all the added sugars people eat, according to a study.
Below are seven common foods that contain added sugars you should look out for:
1. Flavoured Yoghurt
Shouldn’t yogurt be on the good list? Well, it is — but you need to read the ingredients. “If sugar is in the top three ingredients, leave it on the shelf,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, author of 2-Day Diabetes Diet who is based in Sparta, New Jersey. And be aware that sugar can go by more than 60 names, including cane juice and corn syrup, on ingredient lists.
Or opt for plain yogurt to begin with and add your own sugars at home. “Cinnamon, fresh fruit, pureed berries, unsweetened apple sauce, toasted and unsalted nuts and seeds are all great additions to provide flavour without the already added sugars,” says Lori Zanini, RD, CDCES, who’s based in Manhattan Beach, California.
2. Canned Soup
You’ve heard about canned soup being high in sodium. But did you know it can also be chock-full of the sweet stuff? You’ll usually find the highest levels in tomato-based soups — some condensed ones have up to 20 grams (g) of sugar per 1 cup serving (with tomato soup being just one example) notes the S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Sugar reduces the acidity of the tomatoes to balance the taste,” Zanini says.
So check soup labels carefully before you buy, especially when it comes to ‘tomatoey’ varieties.
3. Salad Dressing
Dressing is one of the biggest ways a seemingly healthy salad can go from a good choice to a bad one instantly.
Some dressings contain up to 6 g of sugar per serving, and it turns out that light and fat-free versions tend to be the highest in added sugars.
“When manufacturers remove fat from products, they often add more sugar to replace the flavour,” Zanini says.
Your best bet? Try using hummus, tzatziki, citrus juices, vinegar, and even pureed berries as simple, healthy ways to dress your salads, she recommends.
4. Tomato Sauce
Store-bought tomato sauces in jars are convenient but can be sneaky sources of sugar, which is often added to cut the acidic taste of tomatoes and keep jarred sauces fresh longer.
Again, naturally occurring sugars aren’t the issue – corn syrup and other added sugars are. And some jarred sauces come with up to 4g in ½ cup, per the USDA. If you have trouble finding sauces that are low in or free of added sugars, try a can of plain diced tomatoes instead. “Simply drain the juices, puree, and add your own spices to make a quick sugar-free sauce,” Zanini says. You might end up creating a sauce that you like more than anything you can find on shelves.
5. Fruit Juice
Fruit juices are definitely not all created equal. Some varieties for example, contain nothing but pure juice from oranges. Other drinks labelled as juices are packed with added sugars and other ingredients.
Check product labels and look for juices that list just juice from the fruit on the ingredient list or note “100 percent juice” or “no sugar added” somewhere on the label. (And even then, check the label to ensure artificial sweeteners aren’t being added.) Or better still, opt for the whole fruit instead.
*(Bonus: Research has shown that choosing whole fruit like apples and grapes over their juice counterparts can help lower the risk for Type 2 diabetes.)
6. Granola and Snack Bars
Have you been eating a snack bar for breakfast? Granola and snack bars often sound a heck of a lot healthier than they actually are. Some brands contain 10 g or more of sugar per bar, and you may find white flour in the ingredient list too.
Avoid bars that list sugar in their top three ingredients; there are ones out there that are incredibly low if not altogether free of added sugars. You can also consider snacking on a handful of whole nuts and whole or unsweetened dried fruit instead.
7. Dried Fruit
Dried fruit tends to sound a lot healthier than it is. A single handful (40 g) of dried cranberries, for instance, can contain up to 29 g of added sugar, on top of the fruit’s naturally occurring sugars, notes the USDA. Sugar levels tend to be highest in dried fruits that are naturally tart, Upton says.
Look for options that list only the fruit as the ingredient and no added sugars.