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7 Foods With Hidden Sugar (& How To Avoid Them)

By Eva Lana, MSc. / April 7, 2018

If you’re trying to lose weight and get lean, you probably already know that it’s a good idea to reduce your sugar intake. Maybe you’ve already cleaned out your pantry, thrown out the junk food, and filled your kitchen with healthier options. Even after all this, there’s still a good chance you’re eating more sugar than you realize.

Unless your diet is 100% comprised of whole foods – lean proteins, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – or you’re incredibly diligent about reading ingredient labels, sugar is probably sneaking its way into your diet. How is this possible?

Food Industry Secrets

The food industry knows what makes people buy more of their products. Simply – fat, salt, and sugar. These three ingredients are added to packaged food products to make them more palatable and to manipulate your taste buds so that you crave more. They’re also a factor in the rising obesity epidemic.1 Using scientists, the food industry has perfected the ratio of fat, salt, and sugar in their products to get you hooked.

That information might make you look twice at your favorite box of crackers, or bag of chips.

Carbohydrates vs. Sugars

Before we get into hidden sources of sugar, let’s be really clear on the difference between good carbohydrates and bad sugar.

If you look at the science, all carbohydrates break down into some form of sugar in the body – usually glucose. The carbohydrates that you find in bread, pasta, processed food, starchy vegetables and even leafy vegetables all break down into glucose. So the reality is that glucose comprises a substantial portion of your diet, in addition to proteins and fats.

The Good Carbohydrates

This by no means should deter you from eating vibrant vegetables and fruits. On the contrary, these foods – while technically carbohydrate-based – are mostly water, vitamins, and minerals with some carbohydrates to hold it all together. Additionally, the nutrients in leafy greens and dark fruits help stabilize your blood sugar levels. Even whole grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes have a place in your diet.

The Bad Carbohydrates

Processed, packaged foods and sugary beverages are the primary culprits in your daily overdose of sugar. The obvious sugar-filled foods are cookies, cakes, syrups, ice cream, chocolate, candy, and other sweet treats. But you’d be surprised to find out that a lot of other “healthy” foods are major sources of sugar too – cereals, protein bars, trail mix, tomato sauce, crackers, sausages, smoked salmon, just to name a few. Sugar is hidden almost everywhere.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, take a look at the nutrition facts on a few packaged foods and you’ll see for yourself just how many unsuspecting foods contain sugar in one form or another.

1. Coffee and Teas

Plain coffee and tea are sugar-free and relatively healthy to consume – they contain antioxidants, which have been found to help prevent a number of chronic health conditions.2 Coffee and tea are ubiquitous in our caffeine-driven culture, but they’re rarely served black.

At the well-known coffee conglomerate Starbucks, 98% of the drink menu is packed with sugar. In fact, CNN recently reported that flavored drinks served by coffee shops like Starbucks can contain up to 25 teaspoons of sugar per serving. “That’s three times the amount of sugar in one can of Coke, and more than three times the maximum adult daily intake recommended by the American Heart Association”.

The next time you step into a coffee shop, consider keeping your coffee and tea plain (or add just a splash of milk or cream). If you’re looking for a sweet touch, add it yourself.

2. Granola

You probably know that granola has sugar in it, but did you know how much? This seemingly healthy breakfast option often has at least twice as much sugar as normal breakfast cereal. For instance, if you compare 1 cup of Kashi Granola (a popular “healthy” brand) with 1 cup of Rice Krispies cereal, you’ll see that their sugar content is 10g and 3.3g respectively.

Granola has a healthy façade because it’s usually made with whole oats, nuts, seeds, and other good-for-you ingredients, but it doesn’t deserve the “healthy” title because it’s usually also loaded with added sugar and artificial ingredients. Additionally, you can expect granolas to be higher in fat and overall calories – most of the time, a serving size of granola is about ¼ cup, which can contain 200+ calories.

Consider granola a treat, and use just one serving to add some crunch to plain greek yogurt.

3. Protein and Energy Bars

Snack bars are sneaky. Protein and energy bars are often deemed “healthy” snacks, but this label is often undeserved. While these bars might be dense in the protein, vitamins and/or minerals, they can also be packed with enriched white flour, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, honey, and other sweeteners, which negate their benefits. This means that most health food bars are no better than the average candy bar. To top it all off, the majority of them are quite high in saturated fat while being low in fiber.

On the day-to-day, snack on whole foods like fruits, nuts, and veggies. When you’re in a pinch, or on an outdoor adventure, grab an energy bar that contains simple ingredients and no added sugar. Some great options are: RxBars, Core Meals with Whey, and Mammoth Bars.

4. Fresh Juice

Yes, fresh-squeezed juice is delicious. But it’s also a whole lot of fruit without the fiber, which at the end of the day makes it a glass full of sugar, water, and hopefully some preserved active nutrients. While fresh fruit juice and concentrated juices contain about the same amount of sugar, concentrated juices most likely contain added and synthetic sweeteners as well (unless they say “100% Juice”).

5. Low-Fat Snacks and Ready-Meals

You might feel good about yourself when you opt for fat-free desserts, low-fat biscuits, and calorie-counted “ready meals”, but these options are completely counter-productive if your goal is to get lean and healthy. When you see packaged foods that market their low-fat content, you can pretty much guarantee they’re high in sugar.

“Manufacturers found they had to increase the amount of sugar in their products so we continued to enjoy their taste and texture.” This is a sad but true fact, and people are just now starting to learn about the relationship between sugar consumption and body fat percentage. At the same time that “low-fat” became trendy, the obesity epidemic grew. It’s not hard see that these two trends are inextricably linked.3

6. Sauces, Condiments and Dressings

Look on any bottle of ketchup, vinaigrette dressing, or barbeque sauce and you will be astonished at the sugar content of these “savory” condiments. One fourth of a bottle of ketchup is sugar, 2 tbsp of a standard vinaigrette has at least 4g of sugar and an additional 4g of carbohydrates (also sugar), and 2 tbsp of barbecue sauce has more than 10g of sugar and 22g of carbohydrates. Dozens of other condiments contain high quantities of hidden sugars while also often boasting a high fat content as well (such as creamy dressings and buttery pastes).

Better options include mustard (check the ingredients for added sugars), vinegars, hot sauce, salsa, herbs, and spices. These are all excellent, sugar-free flavor enhancers that don’t add a ton of extra calories.

7. Alcohol

The calories in alcohol come from sugar, point blank. Although liquors (like gin, rum, whiskey and vodka), wine, and beer don’t contain any added sugars, these pure alcohols can contain anywhere from 1-13g of sugar per serving. Then there are the enhanced liquors such as crème de menthe, which has 21g of sugar in just a 1.5oz shot. Then you have mixed cocktails, such as pina coladas (28g of added sugar per serving) and daiquiris (6.7g of added sugar per serving).

To say the least, the sugar and calories in alcoholic beverages add up fast. To make matters worse, alcohol interferes with fat digestion. What that means is, alcohol can prevent fat loss.

If you choose to drink, the CDC recommends up to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women.4 But your best bet is to drink rarely, or eliminate alcohol altogether, especially if you have weight and fat loss goals.

If you want to increase your health, improve your body composition, and get lean, you should seriously take a look at your sugar consumption. The more you fill your diet with single-ingredient whole foods, the less of a concern sugar becomes. So, the easiest fix is to reduce your packaged and processed food consumption. You’d be amazed to see how much that change alone will make when it comes to water retention, fat loss, and weight management.

What’s your opinion? Are there any other foods you would add to this list?

Show 4 References

  1. Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Proceedings (Baylor University Medical Center). 2014;27(3):283-284.
  2. Fukushima Y, Ohie T, Yonekawa Y, et al. Coffee and green tea as a large source of antioxidant polyphenols in the Japanese populationJ Agric Food Chem. 2009;57(4):1253-9.
  3. Available at: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/truth-about-low-fat-foodsJ Agric Food Chem. 2009;57(4):1253-9.
  4. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htmAccessed January 19, 2016.