4 Hidden Sugar Traps and How to Avoid Them

Americans sip, slurp, munch and crunch a whopping 18 to 23 teaspoons of added sugars per day – that’s 78 pounds per year! And while most sugar comes from sweet stuff like sugary drinks, candy and dessert, nearly 20% is hidden in breads, breakfast cereals and other foods according to the Washington, DC-based consumer food watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

sugar overload Added sugars make birthday parties, wedding cakes and ice cream on a summer night sweet, festive and memorable; but if you’re living with diabetes you know that added sugars boost your carbohydrate intake and can therefore raise your blood sugar, without contributing any healthy nutrients to your diet. And while you’re probably careful to adjust your carb intake to make room for treats, many other foods can be hidden-sugar traps.

Spotting added sugars is a challenge because they’re lumped in with natural sugars (found primarily in fruit and dairy products). New label rules proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could change all that in about two years. The FDA wants food makers to list ‘natural’ and ‘added’ sugars separately—and, in a proposal announced in late July, to also indicate how much of the recommended daily ‘limit’ for added sugars a food contains. (The FDA says that most people should have 50 grams of added sugars or less per day. But people with diabetes likely need a lower target to help control blood sugar levels and weight. )

Until labels get smarter about added sugars, here’s how you can avoid “hidden sugar” traps today:  

sugar sleuth1. Be a sugar sleuth and learn to spot the multitidue of words for sugar. Ready for this? Sugar names include: agave, anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, confectioner's powdered sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar), pancake syrup, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar, white granulated sugar.

Meanwhile, “sugar-free” foods may contain mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol. These are sugar alcohols with half the calories that are absorbed more slowly by the body. But they're still a source of sugar.

The sugar fix: Be ruthless about reading labels and entire ingredient lists so you can ferret out added sugars. Foods are listed in order by weight, but you may find a number of different sugars further down on the list.


salad dressings2. Don't assume that savory foods are free of sugar. In fact, “savory” foods can be notorious sources of hidden sugars. Some tomato-based pasta sauces contain up to 12 grams of sugar in a half-cup of sauce. And some fat-free salad dressings have the equivalent of 1 tablespoon of sugar in just 2 tablespoons of salad topping.  Then there are barbecue sauces, like Famous Dave's Sweet & Zesty BBQ Sauce, which has 15 grams of sugar in 2 tablespoons of sauce. And what about those "healthy”, low-calorie frozen dinners? Lean Cuisine's Comfort Roasted Turkey Breast has 24 grams of sugar per meal. Whole-grain bread? One slice can contain nearly a teaspoon of added sugar, four grams. Sounds like no big deal but if you have two slices at breakfast and a sandwich at lunch, that added sugar can add up. Shop for lowest-sugar types.

The sugar fix: If you tend to eat these products, read and compare Nutrition Facts labels to find low-sugar options.


Greek yogurt3. Stick with the basics. Love Greek yogurt? Skip the flavored stuff; add fruit to plain versions instead. There’s more sugar than you might think in flavored Greek yogurt. While a single-serve container of plain, fat-free yogurt’s got just 4 grams of natural milk sugars but a “fruit on the bottom” type with a dollop of sweet fruit under the yogurt can might mean downing a whopping 15 grams in one serving! Into oatmeal? Instant flavored packs can really pack the sugar. For example, Instant Quaker Oatmeal, Cups Apples & Cinnamon has 12 grams of sugar per packet – that’s a full tablespoon of sugar.

The sugar fix: Toss a half-cup of fresh or frozen raspberries on plain yogurt and you add just 2.2 grams of natural sugar – plus you get four grams of fiber and wealth of health-enhancing vitamins and minerals. Spice up plain oatmeal, which has zero grams of sugar, with frozen berries, a sprinkle of cinnamon or nutmeg, pumpkin seeds (sans shell) and shaved almonds.


smoothie at the mall4. Be on your guard when eating "healthy food" at the mall, amusement parks, rest stops and fast food chains. Jamba Juice, a national chain, has smoothies that contain 59 to 67 grams of sugar per glass – about a quarter cup of sugar in every drink! Go with unsweetened iced tea instead. The full size Thai Crunch salad at California Pizza Kichen has 48 grams of sugar.  

The sugar fix: Do most of your eating at home, where you can control the ingredients and the sugar!

Updated on: May 13, 2019
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