Why You Should Avoid Refined Sugar and What to Eat Instead, from an Expert
You know that sugar is bad for you but what you may not know is that they are in all sorts of foods that would surprise you, from salad dressings to tomato sauce to bread, and when your body gets too much sugar, it stores the extra calories it doesn't need as fat. Worse, once those fat stores are locked up, when you burn off your current fuel reserves (and your blood sugar dips) you think you're hungry, and so you reach for more food, likely also containing added sugars.
The result is that rather than burn off the sugar you eat, you get into a cycle of craving more and feeling unsatiated, so it makes it harder to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight when you arrive at one. The point is that added sugar, as opposed to the naturally occurring complex sugars in fruit, vegetables, and starchy vegetables or whole grains, need to be avoided wherever possible, since even if you try to cut out all added sugars, it's nearly impossible unless you limit your food choices to plants you could grow on your own soil.
Added sugars, also known as refined sugar or processed carbs, are sugars that have been processed from whole foods (such as grains) and stripped of their nutritional value and then added to various foods. Unlike naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables or whole grains, added sugars don’t contain any vitamins, minerals, or fiber.
Why Should You Limit Your Sugar Intake?
Added sugars provide calories without a lot of fullness and cause our blood sugar to spike fairly high after consuming them. Due to these factors, consuming an excess amount of added sugars can have negative health effects including an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
How Much Sugar Should You Have Per Day?
As discussed, it is the added sugars (the ones that have a high glycemic index and little nutrition value) that we should be trying to limit. Please don’t try to limit the naturally occurring sugars that are found in fruit in your diet!
The most recent 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that individuals should get no more than 10 percent of their total daily calories from added sugars a day. For a person eating a 2000-calorie diet, this translates into 50 g of sugar a day. However, The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day for women and children, and no more than 37 grams per day for men.
Types of Sugar to Eat and Avoid
It can be tough to spot sugar on an ingredients list, as it isn’t always plainly listed as ‘sugar’. Added sugars go by many different names.
A note as well about ‘natural’ sugars – just because sugar is in a natural form, such as pure maple syrup, doesn’t mean it is not considered an added sugar. It becomes an added sugar when it is extracted from a fruit or other food in the first place and then processed.
Also, remember that ingredients are listed by descending weight on the ingredients list, so spot where these names for sugar land on the ingredients list.
Sugars to Limit
There are many types of sugar that can be on the ingredients list – some of these ‘natural sugars’ (ie agave) and some of the ‘refined sugars’ (i.e. cane sugar). At the end of the day, sugar is sugar and we ideally want to minimize the amount of added sugars in our food.
Check out this chart below for names of added sugar.
11 Foods with Hidden Sugars
Recently when I was in the United States for a trip, I checked out Whole Foods and Safeway to see which products contained high and low amounts of hidden sugars.
1. Marinara and Barbecue Sauces
These sauces that we add to our meals for flavor enhancement can have quite a lot of sugar in them! The S&F BBQ Sauces had around 16 g of added sugar per 2 tbsp serving, while the Born Simple BBQ sauces only had 4 g of added sugar for the same serving. In terms of marinara sauces, the Classico marinara had 1 g of added sugars, while the Whole Foods 365 and Organico Bello sauces both contained no added sugars.
A place where we may not picture hidden sugars is in soup! The Pacific Foods soups tend to have 10 + g of sugar per serving (from vegetables such as sweet potatoes and tomatoes), and only 3-4 g of added sugar per serving. We can still decrease that added sugar though! Instead, I picked up Amy’s soups – specifically the quinoa, kale & red lentil one – which had zero grams of added sugar per serving.
3. Protein Bars
Protein bars can definitely pack in a lot of sugar! Clif Bars have 16 g of added sugar, however, One Protein Bars have no added, hidden sugar – they are instead sweetened with sugar alcohols (limit if you have tummy troubles!).4. Non-Dairy MilkMost plant-based milk brands have sweetened and unsweetened varieties – the sweetened varieties can carry a ton of hidden sugar! Silk, for example, has an unsweetened almond milk that has zero grams of sugar, but they also have chocolate almond milks that have 17 g of added sugars – choose wisely!
4. Nut Butter
The popular Skippy peanut butter brand has 2 g of added sugars per 2 tbsp serving, while Justin’s peanut butter has zero grams of added sugar.
5. Plant-Based Protein Powder
Actually, all of the plant-based protein powders that I found in the store were great – I especially like this one - Garden of Life protein powder, which has zero grams of added sugar. Avoid this one though – Swanson Vegan Protein, which has 20 g of added sugar per serving.
I was certainly a ketchup fan growing up! I loved Heinz ketchup, however, it has 4 tbsp of added sugars per 1 tbsp (I’d definitely use more than that) whereas the Primal Kitchen Ketchup has zero grams of added sugar.
7. Non-Dairy Yogurt
Plant-based yogurt is a staple for me and many others, so it’s important that we chose one that is low in added sugars. The So Delicious vanilla yogurt has 17 g of added sugars per ¾ cup, while the Kite Hill Greek-style yogurt has 0 g of added sugar.
8. Instant Oatmeal
Instant oatmeal is convenient for busy mornings, but it’s crazy how many added sugars can be in your oatmeal! The Natures Path instant oatmeal’s have 10 g of added sugar per package, while Bob’s Red Mill classic instant oatmeal has 0 g of added sugar.
9. Vegan Salad Dressings
Funny how sugar can be found in items that don’t seem ‘sweet’ like salad dressings! Drews Organics vegan ranch provides 1 g of added sugar per tbsp, but Organicville non-dairy ranch doesn’t have any.
10. Pre-Packaged Smoothies
Smoothies always seem like a healthy option, right? Well, pre-packaged smoothies can certainly be a sugar bomb. Forager Project probiotic smoothies provide 15 g of added sugar per bottle, while Genius Juice has smoothies with no added sugar.
11. Canned Fruits
We get enough sugar from fruit, so we don’t need to be selecting fruit cups with added sugar! The Del Monte fruit cups pack in 17 g of added sugar, while the Native Forest & 365 Whole Foods fruit cups both provided zero grams of added sugar.
Bottom Line: Try to stick to whole, plant-based foods the majority of the time.
This practice allows the majority of your sugar intake to come from naturally occurring sources. If you are eating processed foods, make sure you read the label closely to identify added sugars.
For more expert advice, check out The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles.