Juliet Capulet (by Romeo and Juliet fame) once said: What’s in a name? What we call rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.
Juliet was, of course, talking about her star-crossed lover, Romeo Montague. But the sentiment is the same when it comes to sugars.
Your body loves sugar and can actually feel addicted to sugar. Because no matter its name (and it has MANY names), sugar still is it tastes sweet.
But like the ill-fated love story of Romeo and Juliet, sugar addiction is bound to lead to heartache. Excessive consumption of sugar in food and drinks increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease, heart disease and more.
Sugar, sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners are ubiquitous in processed foods and our diets, says registered dietitian Anna Taylor, RD, LD. Many times, people don’t even realize how much sugar they’re eating because they don’t expect certain foods to be so loaded with it. And the labeling on packaged foods can be confusing.
When you decide to break away from sugary foods, or at least cut back on them, it can be difficult to know where to start. That’s because the sweet stuff is hiding in just about every bagged, canned, jarred, or frozen food you can imagine.
We spoke with Taylor about the expected and unexpected foods that contain surprisingly high amounts of sugar, and how you can spot the signs of hidden sugars in food.
Sugary foods to avoid
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugars to no more than:
But the average American consumes about three times more sugar per day than those recommendations.
Part of the reason, Taylor says, is that sugar lurks in more foods than you may know.
Some sugary foods are obvious. You probably already expect there to be high amounts of sugar in cakes, cookies, pastries, candies, and other baked goods and desserts.
But it’s more than that.
The AHA says beverages are the leading source of added sugar in most people’s diets. That includes:
- Alcohol-free drinks.
- Fruit drinks.
- Sports drinks.
- Energy drinks.
And then, there are sugar-laden foods that don’t trigger your sweet tooth but actually include surprising amounts of added sugar. For example:
|Food product||Portions||Total sugars (rounded up)|
|Bean stew||1 cup||21 grams|
|Bran cereal with raisins||1 cup||19 grams|
|Protein bar||1 bar (53 grams)||8 grams|
|Barbecue sauce||1 tablespoon||6 grams|
|Granola bar||1 bar (21 grams)||6 grams|
|Pasta sauce||1/2 cup||6 grams|
|Ketchup||1 tablespoon||4 grams|
|French salad dressing||1 tablespoon||3 grams|
These figures are based on data from the US Department of Agriculture. The amount of sugar will vary based on the brand and other factors, but you get the idea.
And if you think getting sugar-free versions of these products is a healthier alternative, know that that’s not necessarily the case. We’ll talk about that shortly.
Sugars many names
Sugar and sugar substitutes are rampant in processed and packaged foods that are common in American diets. But simply scanning nutrition labels for the word sugar isn’t enough to avoid the material’s many variations.
Added sugars go by many (many!) names. Hence, it is important to read between the lines and spot the sugar masquerading under a pseudonym.
Start by looking for ingredients on nutrition labels that include the words sugar, syrup, or words ending in -ose. Specifically, Taylor says you can be sure sugar is lurking in your foods if you see any of these ingredients:
- Agave syrup or agave nectar.
- Barley malt or barley malt syrup.
- Beetroot sugar.
- Brown sugar or brown rice syrup.
- Cane juice, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, or dehydrated cane juice.
- Carob syrup.
- Caster sugar.
- Coconut sugar or coconut palm sugar.
- Powdered sugar.
- Corn sweetener.
- Corn syrup, corn syrup solids, or high fructose corn syrup.
- Date sugar.
- Demerara sugar.
- Fruit juice or fruit juice concentrate.
- Golden sugar or golden syrup.
- Grape sugar.
- Powdered sugar.
- Invert sugar or invert syrup.
- Malt syrup.
- Malt, maltodextrin or maltose.
- Maple syrup.
- Palm sugar.
- Powdered sugar.
- Raw sugar.
- Syrup refiners.
- Rice syrup.
- Sorghum syrup.
- Sweet sorghum.
- Turbined sugar.
Identify artificial sweeteners
But wait. There’s more!
In addition to refined sugar, there are all sorts of artificial sweeteners that are not good for your health. And artificial sweeteners can be sneakier than refined sugar. That’s because foods that contain artificial sweeteners may be sold in packaged foods that are labeled sugar-free, no added sugar, or dietary.
If you’re looking to cut out the artificial stuff, you’ll want to scan your labels for these ingredients, too:
- Acesulfame potassium (Sweet One or Sunett).
- Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal).
- Saccharin (sweetN low).
- Sucralose (Splenda).
And then there are the sugar alcohols
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more complicated, buckle up.
Sugar alcohols are another way processed foods get an extra sweet twist.
Sugar alcohols are chemicals similar in structure to sugar. They are found naturally in some foods in small quantities. But in packaged foods, they are created artificially and used in large quantities to add a sweet taste while keeping the calorie count low.
Sugar alcohols are commonly used in packaged foods labeled low-calorie, reduced-calorie, keto-friendly, or diabetes-friendly. They go by names like:
Sugar alcohols have Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But recent research is shedding new light on their potential to be problematic.
A recent study shows that erythritol, in particular, is closely associated with an increased risk of major adverse cardiovascular events, including heart attack and stroke. And other sugar alcohols can cause stomach upset for some people.
How to reduce or avoid sugar
If you find yourself consuming too much sugary foods, it may be time to reevaluate your relationship with sugar.
Sugar and other sweeteners hijack your body’s reward and pleasure centers, in much the same way as addictive substances.
Your body doesn’t need added sugar to function, explains Taylor. But sugar reduces the availability of dopamine and opioid receptors. Essentially, it can trick you into thinking you need it.
Knowing which sugary foods to look for is a start. Then comes the hardest part. Break your sugar addiction.
Cutting out added sugar is a lifestyle change. And a big one. So, be easy on yourself and take it slow, advises Taylor. Think of it less like ripping off a bandage. More like training for a marathon.
Taylor’s Top Tips:
- Focus on eating a balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and fiber. This will help give your body balanced fuel, so it won’t require the fast fuel that sugar provides.
- Drink a lot of water. This can help dilute the sugar in your system to avoid sugar spikes and reduce sugar cravings.
- Keep a food diary. This can help you find patterns. Do you eat more sugar at a certain time of day? Do you feel stressed or sad when you eat sugary foods and drinks?
- Talk to a healthcare professional if you find it too difficult to reduce your intake. They can provide personalized recommendations.
Avoiding sugary foods is a big and commendable commitment. Know that any steps you can take to reduce your intake will benefit your health and reduce your risk of chronic disease. Now that is Sweet.
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