The Unexpected Foods With Added Sugar and What to Eat Instead
Many of us are looking for ways to eat healthier and clean up our diet. One of the simplest places to start is by eliminating added sugars, which are in approximately 70 percent of the foods we buy. Not to be confused with naturally occurring sugar that occurs in fruits, (so don't ditch your morning smoothie or afternoon fruit snack just yet), added sugar shows up in most packaged foods from pasta sauce to sliced bread, and is damaging to your body in many ways – from how we metabolize calories, to our ability to lose weight and keep it off.
Added sugar disrupts our energy levels and even our immune systems and has been linked to obesity, heart disease, and certain cancers along with Alzheimer's. Added sugars are everywhere you look (and in many places you don't expect). Here is what nutritionists say about the importance of avoiding added sugars in your diet, and the best sugar-free options to reach for when sweet cravings strike.
What are added sugars?
“Added sugars are basically any form of sugar that is added to food when it is being produced," explains Kiran Campbell, RD, a Michigan-based registered dietitian. This is different from natural sugars, which are part of the molecular structure of fruit, which contains fructose. Fructose in its naturally occurring form is not considered bad for you, since eating whole fruit such as citrus and berries provides your body with vital nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber – all of which are beneficial to your body.
But watch out for sneaky added sugar that can be hidden in frozen or canned fruit since these may contain syrup that masquerades as natural sugar. Honey, for instance, when added as an ingredient in your granola bar would be considered 'added' sugar, as would be any sugar extracted from fruit or plants and reinserted into a product. The best example of this is high fructose corn syrup, which is a condensed form of natural sugars that are added into foods to make them sweeter.
Natural sugar can still be added sugar
Just because sugar comes in a natural form, such as pure maple syrup or corn syrup does not mean it is not considered an added sugar, Campbell explains. It becomes an "added" sugar when it is extracted from the fruit or starchy vegetable and added to other foods in the production process. These added sugars disguise themselves under names like corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, brown sugar, molasses, malt syrup, maltose, dextrose, and sucrose, among others, she adds.
Learning the synonyms for sugar can help you avoid them. Other words ending in “-ose” adds Kristi Ruth RD, LDN at carrotsandcookies.com. “In my opinion, the trickiest one is ‘fruit juice concentrate’ because it sounds like it would be considered a 'natural sugar,’' since “fruit” may make consumers believe that something is healthy. Yet this added sugar offers little nutritional value to the product and triggers the same spike in blood sugar as table sugar.
Added sugars often show up in store-bought drinks as well, says Jinan Banna, PhD, RD, a registered dietitian and professor of nutrition who warns that you need to read labels to know whether your so-called "vitamin water" is actually sugar water. Because ‘added sugar’ must appear as a separate item on a packaged drink's nutrition label, "you can clearly see how many grams of added sugar you are getting,” Banna, points out.
Check the label of all the packaged foods you buy, since sugar shows up in over 68 percent of items at the grocery store, according to a recent survey by researchers at the University of North Carolina, even in unsweet items like salad dressings, sliced bread, cereals, sauces, and condiments. In one popular tomato sauce, you'll find 8 grams of added sugar per serving.
Added sugar and your health
There is a major difference between the way your body metabolizes natural sugars, such as those in berries or a pear, versus added sugars such as in your granola bar. The main differentiator is fiber, which works in the digestive system to slow down the rate of energy absorption, so the calories you eat last longer, which keeps you full longer and prevents the sugar from rushing into the bloodstream and spiking your blood sugar.
When glucose spikes, if you can't use the extra energy as fuel (such as when out for a long run or hike) your body stores it, first in the muscles and liver, then when those cells are full, as fat. There is only so much sugar that the bloodstream can hold at one time, and it is 4 grams or the equivalent to one teaspoon of table sugar. More than that and insulin spikes, which signals the cells: Use this sugar or it's going into cold storage until you need energy later. Result: Fat cells grow.
“Added sugars have a negative effect on one's health for many reasons," says Campbell. "Added sugars play a role in increasing one’s risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. 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, starting at the age of two.
A person eating 2,000 calories per day is recommended to get no more than 200 calories (or 50 grams) of added sugars per day.” The average American eats multiples of that. The average consumer gets 60 percent of their calories from processed foods, so we are all eating at least half of our calories in foods containing added sugars, making it harder to feel full and burn calories instead of storing them as fat.
How much added sugar should you eat?
Optimally, you want to shoot for well under 50 grams of added sugar a day, and half that amount would be healthier, Campbell suggests. 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, she points out.
"This is because added sugars have little or no nutritional value,” explains Ruth. “Diets high in added sugar are energy-dense but nutrient-poor,” she continues, adding that high intakes of added sugars have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease as well as conditions like diabetes and obesity and increased risk of certain cancers.
Plus, added sugar can make it harder to lose weight and contribute to the growth and number of fat cells in the body, meaning it leads to gaining weight. “Added sugar contributes empty calories to the diet that may contribute to excess energy intake and thus to weight gain,” says Banna.
Are all added sugars created equal?
“Scientifically speaking, there are no major distinguishable health benefits from one type of added sugar versus another,” says Campbell. “There are not any added sugars that are better than others. Added sugars are still added sugars, and no matter what form you consume them in, you are still putting yourself at increased risk for health issues.”
One exception: “Pure maple syrup and local raw honey [are better than other added sugars] because they contain potential health benefits not found in other added sugars,” adds Ruth. “These are more expensive, which is the main reason why you don't see them listed as ingredients on most nutrition facts labels.” Of course, at home, you may choose to use these ingredients or dates in lieu of traditional sugars when you're baking or sweetening your food.
What to have instead of added sugar
Below, nutritionists share some easy tips to avoid added sugar.
1. Opt for foods that have natural sweetness.
One cup of strawberries has about 3.8 grams of fructose, which is the equivalent amount of sugar as a tablespoon of ketchup, but it also has 144 grams of healthy fiber and dozens of healthy nutrients. “There are lots of sweet foods with little to no added sugar that can be very satisfying. Fruit is one such food without added sugar and provides vitamins, minerals, and fiber, so consumption of fruit is recommended,” says Banna. “I sometimes choose dried fruit, as it has a very sweet taste to keep me satisfied.
There are many products made with fruit such as dates as well that are sweet and nutritious. While there may be some differences in the various forms of sugar, all should be consumed in moderation, so the main recommendation would be to seek options with little to no added sugar.”
The advice to eat whole foods as close to their natural state as possible holds true when it comes to avoiding added sugar: “Choosing foods that are close to nature is a good way to generally avoid added sugar. Minimally processed foods should generally have much less added sugar,” adds Banna.
2. Eat more fruit.
The merits of fruit can't be overstated when it comes to natural sugar and the way your body processes it, which is to say it's full of nutrients and immune-boosting vitamins, age-fighting antioxidants, and all-important fiber: “Fruit makes a lovely snack or addition to any meal, and it can be used to naturally sweeten a variety of foods like bread, yogurt, muffins, smoothies, and smoothie bowls,” says Ruth.
For instance, if you’re baking, try using bananas or unsweetened apple sauce in the recipe to lend the baked goods’ natural sweetness.
3. Get savvy in reducing added sugar in your diet.
When baking cookies, muffins, or loaves of bread, you often can use less sugar than the recipe calls for, or better yet substitute dates, monk fruit, or other natural sources. “I reduce the amount of sugar and the number of chocolate chips that I use in my recipes,” she says, noting that it’s also a good idea to incorporate more whole grains into baked goods to enhance its nutrition profile and keep you fuller for longer. “Sugar does have a structural function, so it can only be reduced so much in order for a baked goods recipe to work,” Ruth cautions. When Campbell bakes, she aims to reduce the amount of sugar a recipe calls for by ⅓ or ½, “which will reduce the overall added sugars and therefore calories in a recipe without altering the taste too much.”
Ruth is also partial to mixing sweetened yogurt with unsweetened plain yogurt to boost its nutrition profile, especially for children. “What I’ve done is mix the sweetened yogurt kids are used to with plain yogurt in order to get them used to eat what they love with less sugar.”
4. Try these sugar substitutes.
If you're craving sweetness or need to add a sugar substitute to recipes or beverages like coffee or tea, consider sugar substitutes. “There are many options out there that provide zero calories and no added sugar; however, not all are Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) per FDA guidelines,” says Campbell. Some sugar substitutes she recommends are stevia, allulose, sucralose, erythritol and monk fruit extract.
“Most of these options have research reporting no adverse GI outcomes (gas, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea) and have not been found to raise blood sugar levels in diabetics,” she says. “They also come in individual packets for sweetening beverages or sprinkling on foods or larger packages to use as a sugar substitute when baking.”
5. Load up on real, whole foods.
“To curb cravings, you will also want to be sure you are eating enough ‘real’ food,” says Banna. “Make sure you have a complete meal with enough protein, whole grains, fruit, and veggies,” she continues, noting that doing so should help you to feel satisfied in general.
Bottom line: The Less Added Sugar in Your Diet, the Better.
To avoid weight gain and be your healthiest, cut out added sugar in your diet which has been linked to obesity, inflammatory conditions, heart disease, and cancer. The easiest way to do that is to avoid processed food and choose a diet of whole plant-based foods instead.