Sugar Shock

Don’t sour your fitness gains with hidden sugar bombs

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD | July 01, 2014

There is no way to sugarcoat it: diets are drowning in sugar. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average American female is getting at least 13% of her daily calories from sugars added to foods. A worrisome statistic considering that the World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced we should reduce our intake of the sweet stuff to only 5% of daily calories (about 25 grams a day for gals) — half of what the organization previously recommended. 

Not only is our collective saber-sized sweet tooth contributing to skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes, not to mention busy dentists, but it’s also causing coronary woes. A 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who took in about 20% of their calories from added sugar were 38% more likely to succumb to heart disease than those who ate less than 10%. 

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But these days, steering clear of added sugars in the supermarket can seem like a Sisyphean effort. Researchers at the University of North Carolina determined that about 75% of all packaged foods contain added sweeteners. While you don’t need a nutrition degree to know that sodas and chocolate cookies are obvious sugar carriers, the food jungle known as the grocery store is saturated with plenty of less-obvious “healthy” foods with hidden sweet spots. From crackers to deli meats to barbecue sauce, the sweet stuff is nearly everywhere. That’s why you need a plan of attack so you can suss out the sugar lurking in unsuspecting places such as these foods and ways to make them less nutritionally corrupt.

Whole-Grain Bread

The staff of life has now become a sneaky sugar smuggler. Many national brands of bread include an ingredient list that places sugar as one of the predominant ingredients. A single slice can deliver up to 5 grams of sugar, so one sandwich can give you 40% of the added sugar deemed safe by WHO. You can also expect sweeteners like molasses and raisin juice concentrate (seriously!) in several breads which are mostly used to give them a darker appearance meant to convey that it’s a more wholesome slice. 

Sugar Smackdown: Often your best bet for bagging sugar-free bread comes from a local artisan bakery. Here, you’ll find bread made with three simple ingredients: flour, water and yeast. Some bakers will add in healthy items like nuts and seeds. And once you source a sugar-free loaf, be sure that it’s made with a whole-grain flour like whole wheat, whole rye or whole spelt.

Reduced-Fat Peanut Butter

The dirty little secret of lower-fat peanut butter is that it isn’t nearly the calorie savers they want you to believe. While the light version of peanut butter has about 30% less fat than the regular stuff, it often contains more sugar and sodium to make up for the loss of flavor when the fat is stripped away. In fact, the added sugar means the calorie count between the two is negligible.

Sugar Smackdown: Don’t fear the fat. Most of the fat in peanut butter and other nut butters is the heart-healthy monounsaturated kind, so replacing it with processed sugars and salt is hardly a nutritional upgrade. Ideally, hunt down nut butters that contain a single ingredient: nuts. And slather no more than 1 tablespoon on your morning toast to keep calories in check.

Salad Dressings

Similar to reduced-fat peanut butter, light or fat-free dressings can be chock-full of sweeteners and salt to compensate for the flavor lost when the fat is sucked out. Some brands can smother your salad greens in as much as 10 grams of sugar per serving. Also be leery of creamy dressings and fruity vinaigrettes, which often also bring sugar to the dinner table. 

Related: Lime Cilantro Dressing

Sugar Smackdown: When shopping in the salad dressing aisle, look for bottles of vinaigrette that contain little more than a mixture of vinegar, healthy oil such as extra virgin olive oil and some herbs. Or do one better, and whisk up your own vinaigrettes: try a mixture of olive oil, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, garlic, and salt and pepper. According to recent research from Purdue University, a little bit of fat is essential for us to properly absorb the assortment of disease-thwarting fat-soluble carotenoid antioxidants like lycopene and beta-carotene found in various veggies.

Granola

While granola may benefit from a healthy reputation, many contain an onslaught of calories and sugar. The latter comes courtesy of sugar-sweetened dried fruits and added sweeteners such as evaporated cane juice or brown rice syrup. As little as a 1/4 cup serving can deliver up to 10 grams of sugar. So store-bought granola can be just an expensive and crunchy sweet treat masquerading as a health food. 

Sugar Smackdown: Plain oatmeal has about half the calories as granola and is a significant source of cholesterol-busting soluble fiber. If you miss the crunch and sweet kick of granola, try jazzing up a bowl of oatmeal with unsalted nuts like omega-3 rich walnuts and antioxidant-packed berries such as blueberries or raspberries. When shopping for granola, do some investigative work and look for brands with least amount of sugar and fewer sweeteners in their ingredient list.

Greek Yogurt

Packed with protein and gut-healthy bacteria, Greek yogurt has become all the rage in the dairy aisle. But if you’re not careful, you’ll be spooning up an avalanche of sugar. Flavored versions such as blueberry, vanilla or lemon can harbor up to six times the amount of sugar as that found in plain types, making them more akin to dessert than a nourishing snack. While some brands include real fruit, the problem is that they are soaked in sweeteners. The sugar listed on the nutrition label in plain yogurt hails from the naturally present lactose in dairy. 

Sugar Smackdown: Traditional, Greek or Icelandic, no matter your yogurt of choice, be sure to toss unflavored cups and tubs into your grocery cart. Ideally, the ingredient list should only include milk and active bacteria. Can’t stomach plain yogurt? Try sweetening it up with fresh berries or a whisper of a healthier sweetener like pure maple syrup or raw honey.

Pasta Sauce

And you thought the processed flour in spaghetti was your only concern. Food manufacturers have now turned seemingly benign tomato sauce into a sugary concoction. Some brands can deliver up to 15 grams of sugar per serving as the sweet stuff accompanies the natural sugar found in tomato puree. This means that if you’re not careful, you could be smoothing your noodles in more sugar than what’s found in some maligned boxed cereals. 

Sugar Smackdown: Why add sugar when tomatoes have plenty of their own natural sweetness? When shopping for pasta sauce, take a peek at the ingredient list and look for options that don’t list any sweeteners. It may take a bit of sleuthing, but they can be found. The best sauces will be made with San Marzano tomatoes, an Italian tomato prized for being low in acid and high in fruity sweetness.

Energy Bars

While energy bars can provide a quick hit of calories before hitting the gym floor or on the drive home afterwards, what’s lurking under many of those wrappers is enough sugar to make some candy bars blush. It’s not uncommon to find bars teeming with 30 grams (or more!) of sugar. Hardly the saintly health food they are made out to be. 

Sugar Smackdown: When spinning your wheels for a healthier energy bar, look for bars with the least amount of added sugar (no more than 10 grams per bar) and a protein-to-sugar ratio of at least 2-to-1. The tasty KIND Strong savory bars fit the bill. Or gravitate towards bars like Larabar that glean their sweetness only from dried fruits like dates and pineapple.

Frozen Pizza

Take a closer look at the ingredient list of frozen pies and you may find that the sweet stuff has worked its way into the crust, the sauce and even the meat toppings. It can all add up to 5 grams of added sweetener in each slice. 

Sugar Smackdown: Ideally, pizza night would mean homemade pie, but if you’re in a hurry there are boxes in the frozen food aisle that aren’t pumped full of sugar. Look for a brand with the fewest sweetener mentions in their ingredient list and you should be able to take down the sugar-per-slice a significant notch. And don’t forget to keep calories, fat and sodium in mind as well.

Almond Milk

From soy to hemp to almond, the market for dairy-free milk alternatives has exploded in recent years. But if you’re not careful, you could be pouring yourself a sugary drink. Case in point: A cup of vanilla almond milk has about 16 grams of sugar, much of it from what is added in the form of a sweetener like cane sugar. While a cup of 1% milk contains 13 grams of sugar, all of it is what naturally occurs in moo juice. 

Sugar Smackdown: Even dairy-free drinks labelled “original” often have sugar added, so you want to select cartons that are labelled “unsweetened” which will not have any sweeteners added.

Sweet Nothings

Sugar goes by many aliases. But sugar by any other name is still sugar. And products labelled “high-fructose corn syrup-free” are not necessarily sweetener free. Watch out for these guises of the sweet stuff in ingredient lists and limit your intake. 

Nature’s Sweetener

Sure, fruit and some sweeter vegetables like beets contain sugar but research has yet to link high intakes of them to any health problems. One reason is that they’re packaged with fiber, which slows down digestion and prevents spikes in blood sugar. Unsweetened dried fruit such as apricots and cherries can be a nutrient-filled snack or salad and oatmeal topping, but they are more concentrated in sugar than their fresh counterparts so moderation is prudent.

About the Author

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Matthew Kadey, M.S., RD, is a Canadian-based dietitian, nutrition writer and recipe developer. A regular contributor for Oxygen and Muscle & Performance magazines, he is also the author of Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Foods for Sports and Adventure (VeloPress, 2016), Muffin Tin Chef (Ulysses Press, 2012) and The No-Cook, No-Bake Cookbook (Ulysses Press, 2013). An avid cycle tourist, Matthew has pedaled his bike through Thailand, Cuba, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.