Sugarjacked! How to Avoid Hidden Sugars
A Bittersweet Discovery
When I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, I knew that my sweet tooth and I would have to adjust and cut down on my beloved candies, baked goods and desserts to keep my blood sugar levels down. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard; I wasn’t overweight and although I had a big sweet tooth, I had learned to cut down and usually ate sugar only as an occasional treat. Imagine my shock when I found that my blood sugar levels were consistently higher than they should be. After numerous diet tweaks and twinges, I gave in and consulted a nutritionist. She suggested keeping a food diary-everything I ate and drank would be recorded– and reading food labels closely.
That’s when I discovered the underground world of hidden sugars; this sweet beast lurked in everything from my favorite pasta sauce to the fried noodles at my local Chinese. It took a long time to come to terms with the realization that lots of everyday foods I assumed were healthy were instead chock-full of undercover sugars.
How much is too much?
Before we look at the main offenders and ways to deal with them, how much sugar is too much? How much should the average person be eating every day? Both the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that women have no more than 100 calories of sugar per day (about 6 teaspoons' worth or 25 g) and men have no more than 150 calories (about 8-9 teaspoons, or 35g). WHO also recommends that just 5% of your daily calories should be added, or “free” sugars.
The reality is much worse-according to the American Heart Association, Americans are consuming an alarming amount of sugar every day. The average America eats an average of 22 teaspoons of added sugars per day — nearly half a cup. American health officials are becoming increasingly alarmed-and with good reason. It’s not just diabetics who need to keep a lid on their sugar consumption-eating a diet full of excess sugar not only increases blood pressure and cholesterol levels, but also boosts the risk of heart disease. In recent years, many researchers are also finding that diets with high amounts of sugar may have toxic effects on the heart, liver and health in general. It can also become a very real addiction that can be very difficult to beat.
Toxic Sugar Shock
The Main Offenders
So apart from obviously sugar-laden items like candy, baked goods, and sweet drinks, where is the sugar we don’t know we are eating coming from?
Pasta sauce- you’d never know it from the taste, but most commercially made pasta sauces contain at least 6 and up to 12 grams of sugar for a half-cup serving (and let’s be honest-who stops at a half-cup of pasta sauce?) That’s the same amount of sugar in a chocolate chip cookie, which takes a lot of the ‘comfort’ out of comfort food like a nice plate of spaghetti and meatballs. For example, the Ragu range pasta sauces usually have 6 to 11 grams of sugar per half-cup while Prego provides 8 to 10 grams a serving.
What can you do?
Look for products with no more than 6 to 7 grams of sugar per serving (around 5 grams will be natural sugars from the tomatoes). Try pasta sauces without added sugar – both Rao’s Tomato Basil Marinara with Fresh Basil (3g), Mario Batali Marinara Pasta Sauce (3g), or Don Pepino(5g) offer economical, easy-to-find sauces (most Wal-marts carry them). Trader Joe’s often has sauce with 3-6 grams. If you have a little more time and want to make a sauce to your own taste, try making the basic recipe below with canned, crushed tomatoes, garlic, onions, and oregano. Go ahead-Mario won’t mind!
Mario Batali's Basic Tomato Sauce
Another unlikely culprit, yogurt is full of healthy calcium and protein, but even low-fat flavored yogurt can have 17 to 33 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving -- that’s about as much as 2 scoops (1 cup) of chocolate ice cream. This natural product, long believed to be the dieter's friend and touted for its many health benefits (66 million French people can't be wrong), it is actually a huge repository of hidden sugar.
What can I do?
When shopping, look for brands that are lower in sugar. Or buy it plain and toss in the fruit of your choice. Whatever you do, do not buy fruit-flavored or fruit-included yogurt-with the average fruit-filled or flavored brand containing 19 grams of sugar, it’s more of a dessert than a healthy snack.
The good news: you may as well go for the full-fat versions of your favorite foods, including yogurt. Low-fat and 'diet' foods often contain extra sugar to help improve their taste and to add bulk and texture to take the place of fat. And while sugar-free foods don’t contain sugar, they do have synthetic sweeteners such as saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame. So? What’s the big deal? They have a sweet taste, but don’t limit your sweet tooth; in fact, they send messages to the brain that encourage it to crave more sweets. This often results in eating too much of the sweet stuff.
Instant Oatmeal and Breakfast Cereal
I was happy to find out that my go-to breakfast of oatmeal was a fairly healthy choice; however, my backup of instant oatmeal for times when I was in a hurry? Not so much. Oatmeal has a good rep for being full of healthy fiber, but many fruit-flavored instant ones have between 10 and 15 grams of sugar per packet. “Reduced sugar” varieties can have closer to 5 or 6 grams per packet.
What can I do?
Make the regular old-fashioned variety. Don't have time? Make it the night before (crock pots are good for this) and put it in a to-go container. Have healthy add-ins like nuts or fresh fruit to top it with when you're ready to eat.
And let's not forget regular, reliable breakfast cereal, which usually has too much sugar.We’re not even talking about the obviously sugary fruity ones we enjoyed as kids (and may still eat Seinfield style now and again) - even healthier-sounding ones sneak it in. Many popular oat, corn and bran cereals have 10-20 grams or more per cup. No matter what the front of the box promises, read the ingredients label to be sure of what you’re getting.
What can I do?
Replace most breakfast cereals with plain oatmeal. If you eat cereal for breakfast, odds are that you’re getting far more added sugar than you bargained for. In fact, unless you eat plain Shredded Wheat, original Cheerios, Uncle Sam’s Original or a puffed whole grain cereal, you most definitely are. Even seemingly healthy cereals contain several teaspoons worth of sugar per serving, such as: Raisin Bran (20 grams, or 5 teaspoons), Kellogg’s Smart Start (14 grams, or 3.5 teaspoons) and Kashi GoLean Crunch (13 grams, or 3-plus teaspoons). Plain oatmeal with added walnuts or almonds and a sprinkle of cinnamon, has none to 1. Add fresh fruit for a sweeter taste.
If you get tired of eating oatmeal for breakfast, look for alternatives that are low or no-sugar. The recipe below is from the book, I Quit Sugar by Sarah Wilson, which has some of the best-tasting sugar-free recipes I have ever found. This is one I make when I need some variety:
- Chia Pudding - I Quit Sugar
This Chia Pudding by Lee Holmes is a simple and tasty way to start your day.
Granola and granola bars
Granola, which I had always believed was the healthy choice for breakfast, snacks, and a quick energy boost in bars carries its own hidden sugar bombs. There are often at least 12 grams of sugar in the average bar – you will often find the first few main ingredients are sugars, not the nuts and fruit pictured on the package. Fitness bars are often no good for your fitness. Bars such as Clif or Luna do have more fiber and protein, but usually pack in about 24 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar, too much for a diet that should only have a daily total of 6-9 teaspoons of added sugar.
What can I do?
Buy bars that contain only 4 to 5 grams of sugar per serving. Or eat mixed nuts or a piece of fruit instead. Another option is to make your own DIY trail mix. The typical granola bar usually comprises whole grains, fruits and nuts along with a substantial amount of sugar. You can get the same effect minus the sugar by taking the ingredients and mixing them in a Ziplock bag or container. Buy your favorites – sunflower or pumpkin seeds, cashews, almonds, or even roasted chickpeas. Add a small amount of dark chocolate chips and dried fruit. This will cut out 11 to 22 grams (3-5 teaspoons) of added sugar found in the average energy bar; it will save 6to 12 grams of added sugar in the usual granola bar.
Bread (yes, bread)
Dipped in olive oil, slathered in peanut butter, healthy and satisfying snack or part of a meal, bread has long been one of my favorite things. Yep, you guessed it—most bread has added sugar. Even the most popular brands of 100 percent whole wheat bread tend to have 3 to 4 grams of sugar – that’s 1 teaspoon of sugar a slice. I don’t know about you, but this was one of the most depressing discoveries of my adventures in label reading. My toaster quickly became my enemy.
What can you do?
Making a switch to crispbreads, which are usually made of yeast, salt, whole grains, and not many other ingredients and normally have zero grams of sugar is one possibility; try European crispbreads like those from Wasa or Ryvita, found in most grocery stores. If, like me, you find crackers do not provide a satisfactory substitute to bread, look for a brand of bread with no added sugar – Food for Life’s Ezekiel 4:9 is a healthy alternative. If you are lucky enough to find a local baker, you may find artisan breaks like rye or sourdough that may not have much added sugar. Don't be shy about asking the baker.
Or learn to make your own. There are plenty of simple how-to bread making books out there, and bread-baking classes are often a popular way to meet people and learn to bake at the same time. It's a great way to enjoy freshly-baked bread and control what goes into your food. Try The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, which includes beautiful photos to accompany the user-friendly recipes. Flour, Water, Salt and Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza by Ken Forkish is also a good starter book for aspiring bakers.
Ok- now what?
The foods I listed are just a few of the foods that contain surprise sugars; you may also find it in salad dressings, soups, and other products you normally wouldn’t suspect. Once you start looking, sugar seems to be in everything, but don’t despair: It may seem overwhelming at first, but there are ways to deal.
The most important thing is to get used to reading the label. 4 grams of sugar is about one tablespoon. Remember that the labels will add natural sugars (grains and fruits) with the added sugars, (sucrose, corn syrup), so look at the list of ingredients to figure out what kind of sugar it is.
It can be confusing to try to find out how much added sugar a food contains. The sugar listing on a Nutrition Facts label lumps all sugars together, including naturally-occurring milk and fruit sugars, which can be deceiving. This explains why, according to the label, one cup of milk has 11 grams of sugar even though it doesn't contain any sugar “added” to it
Discover how much sugar is in your food by doing these simple checks:
- Look at the 'carbs as sugars' on the nutrition panel - this includes both natural and added sugars; less than 5g per 100g is low, more than 15g per 100g is high.
- Check the ingredients list for anything ending in 'ose' (glucose, sucrose, fructose, lactose, maltose) - these are all forms of sugar, as are honey, agave, molasses and syrups like corn and rice syrup. The higher up the ingredients list, the more sugar the product contains.
- Also remember that even though people will debate which sugars are “better," whether it be agave, honey, brown sugar, molasses, cane syrup, corn syrup or white table sugar, to your body sugar is sugar.
- Another tip is to read labels and compare the amount of sugar in different products you’re thinking about buying. The sugar content can differ widely in different brands of the same food like peanut butter or condiments. Buying the item with less sugar will add up – you may save a few teaspoons a day simply by checking the label.
Send in the subs
You may want to cut down on sugar by using substitutes like sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol, which provide the sweet taste with fewer calories. For home baking, xylitol is often used at a regular 1:1 sugar ratio. Be aware that it can not be used with products using yeast and may not brown as well as baked goods with regular sugar. There are many books and websites for bakers who want to use xylitol instead of sugar.
Baking with xylitol
- Xylitol | Natural Sugar Substitute | Elana's Pantry
Xylitol is a natural sweetener that is used as a sugar substitute. It is derived from birch bark (corn free) and often used in baking and cooking.
Sugar-free lemon drizzle cake recipe
- Sugar-free lemon drizzle cake | BBC Good Food
Sweetened with all-natural xylitol, this sponge has a dense, syrupy texture and keeps well for a few days, from BBC Good Food.
Do I really have to give up my favorite foods?
But what if you simply can’t give up your favorite sugar-laden foods? Try dilution. For example, if you love your morning breakfast cereal too much to consider a substitute, eat half as much as you usually do. If you find that plain yogurt is too sour for your tastes, mix it with half of your favorite fruit-flavored brand. The same strategy applies to drinks with sugar that are hard to cut out completely. Diluting your usual foods or drinks will not just cut down on your sugar consumption – it may also train your taste buds to get used to less sweet versions of your favorite foods.
Where do I go from here?
I’ll be honest- I am never going to quit sugar completely; I love it too much and as long as I eat it sparingly—as a treat rather than a regular part of my diet, I should be able to keep my sugar levels low. However, finding good-tasting alternatives to my favorites and knowing how much I am consuming and when helps make it possible to control how, what, and when I eat- and being able to do that is the sweetest trick of all.