By: Paige Doyle, Certified Nutritionist and dietetics student ● IG: @paigelynndee ● www.ditchmyscale.com
We all know that foods like ice cream, candy bars, cake, cookies, and soda pop contain added sugars, but did you know that sugar is also added to a wide array of foods you might not even consider sweet? Look in your pantry, and you might be surprised to find added sugar in pantry staples such as coffee creamer, ketchup, pasta sauce, peanut butter, bread, and crackers. Even when we are trying to be health-conscious consumers, sugar can sneak its way into our diets.
How much sugar is too much?
The CDC recommends that we keep our added sugar intake to less than 10% of our total daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that is about 12.5 teaspoons of sugar a day. Yet, American adults consume an average of 17 teaspoons of sugar per day. This should not come as a surprise considering a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola contains a whopping 16 teaspoons of sugar! From a nutritional standpoint, added sugars provide no health benefits; sugar does not contain fiber, vitamins, or minerals we need to be strong and healthy. You can look at added sugars as “empty calories.” According to a recent scientific article, excess sugar can be linked to dental caries, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Researchers are also discovering a link between high sugar consumption and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adolescents.
What does “added sugar” mean?
The CDC defines added sugars as sugars and syrups that are added to processed foods or beverages. Naturally occurring sugars, on the other hand, are found in whole foods, such as vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy products. Foods that contain natural sugars provide essential nutrients for the body, whereas those with added sugars often do not. By checking the nutrition labels on foods you purchase, you can discover if a food item contains added sugar. The FDA requires that food manufacturers list these added sugars underneath Total Sugars. Keep in mind that Total Sugars includes naturally occurring sugars, which is why you need to read the Added Sugars content underneath Total Sugars. A helpful article from the FDA on how to read nutrition labels can be found here. You can also read the ingredient list and see if sugar has been added. Sugar can go by many different names – 56 to be exact! Some of the more common names for sugar you might see on an ingredient list include cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, liquid fructose, malt syrup, maple syrup, and molasses.
Honey, maple syrup, and other pure sugars and syrups are not required by the FDA to be included under Added Sugars, but they must still include the percent Daily Value (DV) for added sugars on their labels. These single-ingredient sugars are labeled in this manner so that it does not look like more sugars have been added to the product. It is important to note that while honey and maple syrup are naturally occurring sugars, when they are added to foods for sweetness, they are still contributing to your daily added sugar count.
What about artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols?
Sugar substitutes, such as artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols, have been marketed as a way to enjoy sweets without the added calories. But are they safe alternatives? The FDA has approved the following artificial sweeteners: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, and neotame. However, some studies have pointed to potential downsides of their use. In one study, as well as several others, both aspartame and sucralose were associated with significant rises in blood sugar levels after eating. Additionally, another study recently came out showing that use of artificial sweeteners is associated with risk of type 2 diabetes. While enjoying a diet soda every now and then is fine, researchers warn consumers to not rely on artificial sweeteners to help with obesity or diabetes.
Sugar alcohols are different from sugar in that they contain fewer calories. Foods that contain sugar alcohols can be labeled sugar free. Sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol are the most common sugar alcohols used by food manufacturers. Research has shown that sugar alcohols can help prevent dental caries and lower caloric intake. Xylitol, in particular, has been shown to reduce dental plaque and harmful bacteria.
This is why you will find it in a lot of sugar-free chewing gum brands. However, consumption of sugar alcohols has been linked to some gastrointestinal disturbances. This may not occur in the case of everyone who consumes sugar alcohols, and some types may be better tolerated than others. If you notice any gastrointestinal distress after consuming sugar alcohols, it may be wise to avoid them.
Stevia is a sugar alternative that does not fall under an artificial sweetener or sugar alcohol. Instead, it is considered a novel sweetener. Stevia is actually a plant with incredibly sweet leaves, 200-350 times sweeter than sugar. This is why you only need a small amount of stevia extract to achieve the same sweetness of sugar. When companies extract and purify the leaves to make a stevia sweetener, the final product does not get absorbed in the upper gastrointestinal tract. Therefore, it does not contribute any calories in the diet. Stevia sweeteners are generally regarded as safe, but should not be seen as a diet food or weight-loss aid.
Surprising “health foods” that contain added sugar
Once you get into the habit of reading nutrition labels to check for added sugars, you can make conscious decisions of what marketed “health foods” to avoid. Flavored yogurts, energy bars, cereals, nut butters, salad dressings and other condiments are just a few examples of foods that contain hidden sugars.
Let’s examine some popular “health food” brands:
Kashi Go Lean Crunch cereal contains 11 grams of added sugar in a ¾ cup serving. If you look at the ingredient list, you will find sugar sourced from brown rice syrup, cane sugar, and honey.
Clif Energy Bars contain a surprising 21 grams of added sugar, and sugar can be sourced from brown rice syrup, cane syrup, cane sugar, and barley malt.
Activia Yogurt contains 8 grams of added sugar in a small 4-ounce container. Cane sugar and fruit juice concentrate can be found on their ingredient list.
Brianna’s Home Style Poppy Seed Dressing contains 6 grams of added sugar for every 2 tablespoons you use on your salad.
Justin’s Honey Peanut Butter contains 3 grams of added sugar in a 2 tablespoon serving size. On their ingredient list you will find honey and cane sugar.
A good rule of thumb is to generally avoid those packaged and highly refined foods found in the middle aisles of the grocery store. Ali Miller, RD, LD, CDE, wrote a helpful article about how to replace sugar with real nutrients, which you can read here.
Foods with no added sugar
Here are some ideas of foods you can prepare at home or purchase at your local grocery store that do not contain any added sugars:
- Try plain, whole-milk yogurt with fresh fruit, nuts, and/or seeds. This is a great breakfast or snack option packed full of calcium, protein, fiber, healthy fats and antioxidants (from the fresh fruit).
- Coffee creamers often contain added sugars. Since most people consume coffee with some sort of creamer, it is important to make sure we are focusing on high-quality options with no added sugars. Instead of using an artificially flavored coffee creamer, try using full-fat canned coconut milk, almond milk, hemp milk, or oat milk. When choosing a creamer for your coffee at the store, be sure to read the nutrition label, as even nut milks can contain added sugars. Look for products that say “unsweetened.” Check out how these two coffee creamer brands compare to one another per serving:
|Nut Pods French Vanilla Creamer||Coffee Mate French Vanilla Coffee Creamer|
|0 grams added sugar||5 grams added sugar|
|Contains coconut cream, almonds, and natural flavors||Contains vegetable oil, sugar, and artificial flavor|
For more on selecting a coffee creamer with little to no added sugar, check out my post here.
- Instead of purchasing a salad dressing from the store, try a homemade salad dressing, such as this simple recipe. Primal Kitchen brand also makes delicious salad dressings with no added sugars. Not only is making your own salad dressing satisfying and flavorful, you will also be avoiding refined vegetable oils (such as canola, soybean, or cottonseed oil) that many store-bought salad dressings contain. Vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are linked to inflammation and obesity.
- You may be surprised to find out that a lot of nut butters on the shelves contain more than just roasted nuts and salt. Here are a few nut butter brands with no added sugar: Adam’s Natural, 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods brand), Barney Butter, Santa Cruz Organic, and Artisana Organics. Brands like Jif and Skippy not only contain added sugars, but also hydrogenated vegetable oils. Hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils contain trans fat and should be avoided. Trans fat increases your “bad” LDL cholesterol, while decreasing your “good” HDL cholesterol. This can increase your risk of developing heart and blood vessel disease. For more on all the different types of nut butters, check out my post here.
- Crackers make a wonderful snack by themselves, or dipped in hummus or guacamole. A lot of companies sell crackers that are heavily processed and full of refined sugars and oils. Simple Mills, Mary’s Gone Crackers, and Jillz are just a few brands that contain no added sugars. You can also make these simple flaxseed crackers at home. All of these cracker options are minimally processed, rich in fiber and contain whole grains/seeds. See how Mary’s Gone Crackers compares to Wheat Thins per serving:
|Mary’s Gone Crackers||Wheat Thins|
|0 grams added sugar||4 grams added sugar|
|3 grams dietary fiber||2 grams dietary fiber|
|5 grams protein||2 grams protein|
|Contains organic brown rice, flaxseeds, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.||Contains canola oil, sugar, malt syrup, and refiner’s syrup|
- Most store-bought bread contains added sugar. Try these no-sugar added bread options: Ezekiel 4:9, Angelic Bakehouse, and Alvarado Street Bakery. Be sure to read our blog on healthy bread. There are also some great alternatives to bread if you are trying to watch your carbohydrate intake. If baking is your thing, try this Paleo Sandwich Bread recipe that is grain, dairy, and sugar free! See how these two breads compare to one another per serving:
|Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Bread||Brownberry Country Oatmeal Bread|
|0 grams added sugar||2 grams added sugar|
|3 grams dietary fiber||1 gram dietary fiber|
|Contains organic sprouted: wheat, barley, millet, lentils, soybeans, and spelt||Contains malted barley, soybean oil, sugar, and natural flavor|
- Trail mix is one of those seemingly healthy snacks to take with you on-the-go to work or for fitness. However, most store-bought trail mix is packed with lots of added sugars. Make your own at home by combining your favorite nuts and seeds with dried fruits, such as mango, pineapple, goji berries, or cranberries. A lot of dried fruit contains added sugars as well, so make sure to read the nutrition labels before buying! A healthy trail mix contains antioxidants, fiber, healthy fats, and protein. Take a look at this comparison between two trail mix brands (per serving):
|Essential Living Foods Superfood Trail Mix||Kind Nut Clusters Trail Mix|
|0 grams added sugar||4 grams added sugar|
|3 grams dietary fiber||2 grams dietary fiber|
|Contains dried fruit, raw nuts, and cacao nibs||Contains tapioca syrup, cane sugar, and canola oil|
The Bottom Line
Choosing whole foods that contain naturally occurring sugars as a form of sweetness, such as fresh or dried fruits, is going to provide you with a lot more nutrition than foods containing added sugars, or sugar alternatives. Since sugar has no health benefits other than providing calories, and is associated with an increased risk for developing diabetes, obesity, and ADHD when consumed in excess, avoiding foods with added sugars can improve your overall health and metabolic function. Additionally, relying on artificial sweeteners has not been proven to be helpful for diabetics and those looking for weight-loss strategies.
Health claims on food labels can be deceiving, so be sure to always read the nutrition label. When in doubt, the less processed a food item is, the more likely it is to be nutrient dense and low in added sugars.
Have questions? Comments? I would love to hear what you think below!