Have you ever played hide-and-seek in the grocery store? Here’s a fun new game for you: food manufacturers have hidden sugars in your food, and it’s your job to find them! Although you can expect to find lots of added sugar in the bakery section, you may be surprised to find hidden sugars lurking in the soup aisle, chips and cracker aisle, and even the “health foods” aisle! Read on to learn what hidden sugars are, how to find them on a nutrition label, and ways to reduce your intake for a healthier mind and body!
What are Hidden Sugars?
Before we get started, let’s define some sweet terms.
Natural or Naturally-Occurring Sugars
Natural sugars are those found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy mostly in the forms of fructose and lactose (1). Because naturally occurring sugars are found in whole foods, they are often accompanied by other nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and water (2).
Refined sugars are byproducts of heavily processed sugar beets, sugar cane, or corn (3). They are added to many processed foods to increase their sweetness.
Added sugars are exactly what they sound like – sugars and syrups added during preparation, processing, or consumption. Some common examples include sucrose, glucose, fructose, dextrose, and high fructose corn syrup. Even more “natural” sweeteners, such as maple syrup, agave nectar, and honey, are still considered added sugars (4). We’ll provide some other names for sugar later in the article.
Hidden sugars are added sugars disguised with less well-known names and in products where you would not expect to find them (5).
We recognize that many of these words sound the same. However, it’s important to be able to note the small differences, as these can help you make more informed buying and consuming decisions. For example, a product may boast that it’s made with organic and/or “natural” ingredients, whole grains, or real fruit, but these are often just marketing tactics to trick you into purchasing a product that contains more sugar than you should consume. The best way to know how much and what kind of sugar you’re consuming is to flip the package over and read the nutrition label for yourself.
How to Read a Nutrition Label
Flipping over a food package and trying to understand the nutrition label can be a confusing and overwhelming process. There are so many words, numbers, symbols, and figures – it’s hard to know what’s most important! Learning how to tell how much added sugar is in food can be a helpful tool to have in your toolbelt.
When looking at the Nutrition Facts panel, check how many total grams of sugar are in one serving. Four grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon. Keep in mind that if you eat more than one serving, this amount will increase. The new Nutrition Facts Label requires a separate “added sugar” section for all products, except single ingredient sugar items. Some products, such as flavored yogurt, peanut butter, and jam, will contain both natural and added sugars. Added sugars are the ones you want to limit, unless you have diabetes; in that case, it’s important to monitor all sugar.
To learn what kind of added sugar is present in the product, look at the ingredients list. There are over 60 different names for sugar. Here are some key words that can help you identify them on the ingredient list:
- Words that end in “-ose” – sucrose, fructose, dextrose, maltose
- Syrups – malt syrup, brown rice syrup, maple syrup
- “Juices” – evaporated cane juice, fruit juice, cane juice
Here is a list of different names for sugar. Don’t be surprised if more varieties are developed in the coming years as food manufacturers try to sneak them in under your nose!
How much added sugar is okay?
According to the CDC, Americans should aim to consume less than 10% of their total calories from added sugar. For someone following a 2000 calorie diet, this would mean consuming less than 200 calories, 50 grams, or 12 teaspoons of added sugar per day (6, 7).
The World Health Organization also provides a strong recommendation to limit “free sugars” (synonymous with added sugars) to less than 10% of total calories. They provide a further conditional recommendation to bring that intake down to less than 5% of one’s total caloric intake (8).
The American Heart Association suggests no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women and children, and no more than 9 teaspoons for men. Remember when reading a label that 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon.
Most Americans exceed these recommendations; the average adult consumes about 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, contributing roughly 275 calories to the daily diet (9).
Health Risks of Excessive Sugar Consumption
Some people say that a moderate amount of sugar is fine, whereas others claim that even a little bit can have negative health consequences. Researching the short-term and long-term health effects of sugar consumption is difficult, as conducting randomized controlled trials is expensive, nuanced, and time-consuming.
There is, however, substantial evidence that correlates excess added sugar consumption with negative health outcomes. Excess added sugar consumption appears to increase risks of abdominal adiposity, metabolic syndrome, dyslipidemia, fatty liver disease, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and Alzheimer’s disease (10, 11, 12, 13).
Note that this evidence is based on excess added sugar consumption, so taking this information in context is important. Children, pregnant and lactating women, athletes, individuals with diseases, and older adults have different dietary needs, so their added sugar intake and limitations are highly variable. If you would like personalized guidance on how to reduce excess added sugars from your diet in order to reduce your risks of these diseases, consider working with a registered dietitian.
How To Cut Down On Added Sugar
Reducing added sugars from 17 teaspoons per day to the CDC’s recommended maximum 12 teaspoons per day could lead to a potential 8-pound weight loss per year.
Cutting added sugars down further to the American Heart Association’s recommendation of just 9 teaspoons per day could lead to a potential 15-pound weight loss per year. Although this doesn’t sound like a lot of weight, it’s enough to have clinically significant effects on blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes risk (14).
There is a dose-response relationship between sugar consumption and health outcomes. For maximal benefits, aim to reduce overall sugar as much as possible. Here are four simple strategies that can help you reduce the amount of overall sugar you consume.
Where do we find hidden sugars? Of course, foods such as candies, desserts, and sodas contain lots of added sugar, but there are also some less obvious sources too. Here’s a list of foods with hidden sugars.
What are the areas of your diet in which you can improve? Which foods with added sugars can you reduce or eliminate first?
Once you know which sources of hidden sugars you’re going to reduce/eliminate, go grocery shopping. Choose to purchase naturally sweet foods such as fresh fruits, and try to find low-sugar or no-sugar alternatives to your favorite items.
Another easy way to limit the amount of hidden sugars in your diet is to make your own food at home. Although some recipes may still call for some added sugar, it’s likely that you’ll end up using far less than a food company.
Need some recipe inspiration?
Try out some of our favorite lower-sugar recipes and then let us know how you liked them by leaving a sweet rating and review!
We hope that this article provided some context and content that will help you along your health journey. Remember, life is sweet, so let’s keep it that way! Reducing added sugars can keep your body healthier and happier for the long run. What can you do to reduce hidden sugars from your diet? We’d love to hear in the comments section below!
To YOUR Taste,