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Hidden sugar in your food

It may be hiding in places you don't expect

This article was last updated on Feb. 13, 2023.

Our moms warned us about the consequences of too much sugar, telling us to stay clear of candy, cookies and other sweets.

But, the sugar of today is far sneakier than the sugar mom warned us about. It comes in a variety of forms. And it is found in foods that may otherwise be considered “healthy,” like yogurt, cereal, bread and crackers, and even foods that are marketed to us as “low fat” or “whole grain.”

A diet high in added sugars is linked to many health conditions, including the obvious: obesity and Type 2 diabetes. New studies link sugar to high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke, including increased levels of “bad” cholesterol, or LDLs. Other studies show that sugar contributes to the growth of cancer tumors.

In a country where a third of the children are overweight or obese, we can’t afford to be in the dark when it comes to our sugar intake. Yet, most consumers have no idea how much sugar they take in during an average day.

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Sugar is everywhere

“We all know there is sugar in candy, soda and sweets,” says Dana Lemberg, registered dietitian and well-being consultant at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “But the real culprit to our sugar addition is hidden sugar. There are large amounts of sugar hiding in unexpected places: pasta sauce, instant oatmeal, ketchup, barbecue sauce, salad dressings and peanut butter.”

"A lot of foods marked as 'low in fat' tend to be high in sugar," says Lemberg. "To make up for the lack of taste from fat, manufacturers add more sugar. Most of us don’t have room in our diets for this many calories from added sugar. That’s why it’s so important to read nutrition labels and make informed choices about your sugar intake,” says Lemberg.

Sugar addiction is a real thing

Not only is sugar in almost everything, it is addictive. Most of us are familiar with the term “sugar high.” It’s your body’s short-term reaction — its reward — for eating sugar. MRI scans show that your brain releases dopamine External Site, the chemical that controls pleasure in the brain, when you eat something sweet.

The high of a sugar rush is temporary, however. After a few hours — sometimes just a few minutes — you start to crash, and you may become tired, fatigued and lethargic.

It triggers a cycle where you crave sugar. The more you eat, the higher your tolerance. By cutting down on your sugar intake, you can reverse the cycle.

Start with nutrition labels

Perhaps one of the reasons we consume so much sugar is that most of us have no idea how much sugar is in the food we are eating. Most nutrition labels measure sugar in grams, which is a unit of weight. American consumers tend to be more familiar with teaspoons, a unit of volume.

Another reason reading nutrition labels for sugar content has been confusing in the past is because they once lumped all sugars together, including naturally occurring milk and fruit sugars. However, The Food and Drug Administration has updated the Nutrition Facts label External Site, splitting out the number of added sugars from the total sugar count.  

Determining added sugar in food

To determine how much sugar has been added to your food, do this.

Read the ingredients list

Learn to identify terms that mean added sugars. Hint: The words “syrup,” “sweetener,” and anything ending in “ose” can usually be assumed to be sugar. Skip products that have added sugar at or near the top of the ingredient list — or have sources of added sugar sprinkled throughout the list.

Do a sugar calculation

teaspoons of sugar in soda calculation

One teaspoon of granulated white sugar is equal to about 4.2 grams. So, if you drink a soda with 44 grams of sugar, you would divide 44 by 4.2. The soda has 10 teaspoons of sugar.

Inside tip when reading nutrition labels

If the label says no added sugars, it should not contain any of the following: brown sugar, cane juice or syrup, confectioners' sugar, corn sweetener or corn syrup, dextrose, fructose or high fructose corn syrup, glucose, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, molasses or sucrose.

hidden sugar terms

How to kick the sugar habit

Take it one meal at a time. When do you crave sugar most? Focus on that time of day — taking it one meal or snack at a time.

Stop drinking soda and other sweetened drinks. If you drink three sodas a day, cut back to two, then to one, until you’ve eventually cut it out completely. The same is true with sugary, syrupy coffee drinks or fruit juices.

Pass up packaged foods. Instead, snack on stovetop popcorn, fruit or vegetables. If you do choose something packaged, even if it's labeled healthy or organic, look at the sugar since it can hide behind health labels.

Fill up on healthy foods. Eating regular, hearty meals will help you avoid filling up on sweets later. Focus on lean protein and fresh vegetables.

Make wise choices when eating out. Sugar is hidden in many restaurant meals. If you are eating out, try grilled meats and roasted vegetables.

Use the two teaspoon rule. If it is too hard to go completely sweet-free, use unrefined sweeteners, such as pure maple syrup, raw honey or coconut sugar. Use only two teaspoons of sweetener at a time. These sugars are less stressful on the body and less addicting. Stevia® is also a good choice for those wanting something sweet without calories or any rise in blood sugar.

Want more tips for kicking your sugar habit? With these tips, you can conquer your sugar addiction, once and for all.