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If you aren't careful about reading the nutrition labels on your food, you may end up eating way more sugar than you ever realized. One common pitfall is buying foods because of their face-level marketing that claims the item is "all-natural," "whole-grain" and the like. Underneath those claims, though, high amounts of added sugar may be disguised as something healthier or fancier on the ingredients label. I'm looking at you, agave nectar.
Have you been eating more sugar than you thought? Find out if any of your favorite foods and drinks are actually surprisingly high in sugar. Plus, how much sugar you should consume in a day.
If you start your day off with yogurt, you may start your day off with upwards of 15 grams of sugar, depending on the kind of yogurt you eat. Some yogurts are very healthy, such as Fage Total 0%, which doesn't contain any added sugar at all.
However, many popular yogurts, especially low- or zero-fat varieties, contain shockingly high amounts of sugar -- like Yoplait strawberry yogurt, which contains 19 grams of sugar per serving, 13 grams of which are added sugars.
By now, it's no secret that most white breads contain added sugar, as do sweet varieties like cinnamon raisin and honey nut bread. Most people think they're safe from added sugar by choosing wheat or multigrain bread, but many of these varieties still contain substantial added sugar.
A truly healthy bread shouldn't contain more than 2 or 3 grams of sugar per slice and ideally shouldn't contain ingredients like high fructose corn syrup or evaporated cane juice. For an example of a healthy bread label, take a look at the Powerseed bread from Dave's Killer Bread, which contains just 1 gram of sugar per slice. Ezekiel sprouted whole-grain bread is even healthier with zero grams of sugar.
3. Instant oatmeal
Oatmeal in its purest form -- whole oats -- is rich in fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, selenium, zinc and other minerals. But when it's processed and portioned into convenient single-serve packages, it's often got lots of sugar there, too.
One packet of Quaker Instant Oatmeal in the maple and brown sugar flavor contains 12 grams of sugar, about half of the recommended daily limit of 25 grams. If you add dried fruit, honey or other oatmeal toppings, you may surpass that daily recommendation before you're done eating breakfast.
4. Granola and granola bars
Another breakfast favorite, granola and granola bars are often marketed as healthy because they're low in fat and (sometimes) high in whole grains. Those two health claims can quickly be canceled out by the sugar content, though. One Nature Valley Trail Mix bar has 7 grams of sugar with corn syrup listed as the second ingredient. One serving of Nature's Path Honey Almond Granola contains 7 grams of sugar (6 added).
Granola is also deceiving because of its notoriously tiny portion sizes. You may look at a granola label and think that 6 grams of sugar per serving isn't bad, but take a moment to consider whether you actually ever eat a quarter-cup of granola -- usually, serving sizes look more like a half-cup or two-thirds of a cup, which means you may be eating nearly 20 grams of sugar in one sitting.
5. Protein bars
Protein bars are popular snacks, especially for people who are trying to build muscle and those who need filling meals on-the-go. However, many protein bars are stuffed with sugar, often to the point where they contain more sugar than doughnuts, cookies or a bowl of ice cream.
Fortunately, some brands do make low-sugar protein bars: Quest's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough flavor has 21 grams of protein and just 1 gram of sugar, although it does make up for the lack of sugar with sugar alcohols. If you're sensitive to alternative sweeteners, your best bet is to opt for a whole-food protein bar, such as an RX bar made from fruit and egg white protein.
6. Sauces, condiments and salad dressings
Ketchup, barbecue sauce, berry-based salad dressings and other sweet toppings are known to contain sugar, but some others may surprise you: Marinara sauce, for instance, can contain more than 20 grams per serving, as can ranch and caesar salad dressings. As always, check the label and opt for varieties without added sugar.
7. Sports drinks
That sports drink you're chugging during your workout may taste good and keep you hydrated, but beware of the type you're drinking. Many sports drinks are high in sugar and calories, as the original intent of now-household name brands like Gatorade and Powerade was to fuel intense exercise for long periods of time.
Most people don't exercise long enough or with enough intensity to justify drinking 20 or more grams of sugar during their workout, so low-calorie and zero-sugar options are usually a better choice from the perspective of nutrient balance and weight management. Or, you can always just drink water.
8. Pressed juices
Your favorite green juice probably contains more sugar than you'd care to know about. Obviously, fruit juice contains sugar, so pressed juices made with oranges, apples, mangos and other fruits unsurprisingly contain high amounts of sugar.
The thing is, some of those juices still contain added sugar beyond what's provided by the fruit and green juices made primarily with celery and leafy greens may contain added sugar to offset the earthy taste of juiced vegetables. Even if they technically don't contain added sugar (such as if the sugar comes from natural fruit juice), the sugar content can still surpass 50 grams per serving, like in this Green Machine juice by Naked Juice.
Plus, even if a pressed juice made of fruit doesn't contain added sugars, fruit juice is still not as nutritious as eating whole fruit, because juicing a fruit strips it of fiber and fiber helps slow the digestion of sugar and makes you feel full.
9. Dairy-free milk alternatives
You may think you're doing your body good by avoiding dairy products and lactose, but some dairy-free alternatives undo those healthy intentions with their sugar content. Silk Vanilla Almondmilk, for example, contains 13 grams of added sugar in a one-cup serving -- half of the recommended limit of 25 grams per day.
Try out unsweetened varieties for dairy-free milk with less sugar. You might find yourself surprised that you enjoy the unsweetened version of your favorite plant-based just as much as the sugary one.
10. Canned soups
After a long day, especially on a chilly evening, canned soup seems like a nutritious, comforting, convenient way to get in a hearty meal. While canned soups do contain vegetables and some protein, some varieties contain added sugar.
For example, Campbell's Soup on the Go Classic Tomato Soup contains 17 grams of sugar, with high fructose corn syrup listed as the third ingredient. You can make healthier soup at home with fresh vegetables (make big batches and freeze for quick meals later), or simply check the nutrition facts label before purchasing a can.
11. Peanut butter (and other nut butters)
Peanut butter, almond butter and cashew butter all serve as great ways to eat healthy fats and they're delicious as toast toppings or to eat by the spoonful. Be careful about which brands you choose, because some nut butters are processed with sugar and hydrogenated oils that turn a healthy food into one that may interfere with your health goals.
One of the best-selling peanut butter brands in the US, Jif, lists sugar as the second ingredient (behind peanuts, of course), and follows with molasses. Although the sugar content per serving is only 2 to 3 grams in most peanut butters, that can still add up if you eat more than the standard one-tablespoon serving. Also, it's worth knowing that peanut butter typically contains sugar so you know to read the label if you're actively trying to avoid excess sugar.
There are some sugar-free peanut butters out there, such as MaraNatha peanut butter, which only contains peanuts and sea salt.
How to avoid hidden added sugar
Truthfully, no added sugar is hidden, especially with the recent changes to nutrition facts labels that rolled out in 2020. All of the information is there for you; you just have to read past the buzzwords on the front of the label.
Ignore the exclamations on the front of the box -- such as "made with whole grains!" and "all-natural!" -- and actually read the nutrition label. Check out how much sugar the product has and how much of it is added sugar (the new labels must report that information).
For even more information on what you're consuming, read the ingredients list. In the US, food labels must list ingredients by volume, beginning with the ingredient that is most prevalent in the item. If "sugar" or any variant is in the top five, you may want to try a different product.
Be sure to catch fancy names for added sugar, too: Coconut palm sugar, turbinado, agave nectar, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, brown rice syrup and maple syrup are still sugar. And they're still added sugar if they aren't naturally part of the packaged item.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.