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Don't Let Hidden Sugars Fool You!

Natalie
Stein
July 4, 2020
Don’t Let Hidden Sugars Fool You! - Lark Health
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Are you cutting back on sugar? Choices such as desserts, candy, and sugar-sweetened ("regular") sodas are easy targets, since they are obviously high in sugar. Many other foods have more sugar than you may think and can sabotage your efforts if they sneak into your diet. 

Here is what you should know about why added sugars can be harmful, how to keep hidden sugar from fooling you, and how you can avoid extra sugar in your diet.

Reasons to Limit Sugars

Cutting back on added sugars can be a smart move as the evidence against sugar continues to grow. The first problem is their effect on your weight. Sugar not only contributes calories, but also tends to come in high-calorie foods. For example, consider chocolate bars (sugar and fat), toast and jam (sugar and starch), and chocolate chip muffins (sugar, starch, and fat). Those are some high-calorie foods!

These are some other potential health risks of having too much sugar [1].

  • High triglycerides, which are a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Tooth decay, especially when sugar is on your teeth for long periods of time, such as sipping on a soda all afternoon or sucking on hard candies.
  • Possible increased risk of borderline diabetes (prediabetes) and diabetes.
  • Missing out on healthier foods by choosing, say, cookies instead of high-fiber, high-potassium, high-antioxidant fruit for a snack.

Note that we are talking about added sugars that are put into foods, and not natural sugars that are found in foods such as fruit. In most cases, the health benefits of such foods, such as fiber and potassium content, outweigh the risks of their natural sugars.

Companies Are Savvy

Companies make their livelihoods by catering to consumers, and they are always checking the pulse of their customers. With so many health-conscious consumers, companies are cleverly making many of their products appear as healthy as possible. 

This includes often "hiding" sugars so that at first glance, foods appear to be lower in sugar than they really are. 

One approach is to keep attention away from the high sugar content. For example, food packages might state something healthy-sounding, such as, "All Natural," "Gluten-Free, or, "Organic," to grab your attention. Guess what - sugar is all-natural and gluten-free, and it can be organic.

These are some other claims you may see on packaging, as well as the truth behind them and how to figure out the sugar content.

What Are Some of the Added Sugars?

There are types of sugar that are easy to spot, such as sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, and high fructose corn syrup. Other sugars, such as honey, molasses, and sugar in the raw, masquerade as healthy alternatives, but still carry calories and raise blood sugar. The "-oses," such as sucrose and maltose, are also sugars.

All types of sugars are made up of the "-oses." For example, sugar is the same as sucrose, and sucrose is made of molecules with 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Honey is also made of glucose and fructose, but the percentage changes depending on the source, and there can also be some other sugars, such as maltose. Corn syrup has glucose and fructose, and high-fructose corn syrup has a higher percentage of fructose than glucose.

Finding Added Sugars from Familiar, Unfamiliar, and Misleading Names

Sugar comes in many forms, and under even more names. When you see any of them on the list of ingredients, you can be sure that they are adding to the added sugar total. These are some sugars you may see in the list of ingredients. 

Regardless of where a sugar comes from, it is digested the same. That is, your body sees fructose from muscovado sugar the same way it sees fructose from high-fructose corn syrup.

Hidden sugars in foods
Infographic from the British Heart Foundation

Common Foods and Beverages with Sugars

Where are you getting your sugars from? The most common sources in the American diet are [2]:

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages, including sodas and energy and sports drinks.
  • Grain-based desserts, such as cake and cookies.
  • Fruit drinks, such as fruit punch and lemonade.
  • Candy, such as hard candies and chocolate bars.
  • Dairy desserts, such as pudding and ice cream.
  • Tea, such as sweetened iced tea.
  • Ready-to-eat cereals, such as sugar-frosted corn flakes and most children's cereals.
  • Sugars/honey, such as those used to sweeten foods at the table.
  • Yeast bread, such as white bread and honey wheat bread.
  • Syrups/toppings, such as pancake syrup.
  • Quick breads, such as banana and zucchini bread.
  • Jams and jelly.

There are also many types of food that contain sugars even though you may not expect it. For example, cottage cheese with fruit topping is usually sugar-sweetened, often with sugar and juice concentrate. Frozen fruit is often sweetened with sugar, and trail mix can contain chocolate, sugar-sweetened dried cranberries and other fruit, and white and wheat bread usually have sugar.

Be sure to check out our list of 10 surprising foods with added sugars for more surprisingly high-sugar foods and explanations!

Outsmart Added Sugars!

By being a savvy shopper, you can outsmart the food industry and avoid accidental added sugars. Here are some tips.

  • The nutrition facts panel shows how much sugar is in each serving of a product. Many labels now show added sugars specifically.
  • Any and all added sugars in a product must be shown on the list of ingredients.
  • Ingredients are listed in order from greatest to smallest amount on the list of ingredients. Products with a type of sugar listed first or second are likely high in sugar.
  • A single product may have more than one type of sugar. These sugars may be listed further down on the list of ingredients, but still add up to a lot of total sugar.

Making your own food ensures that you know what is (or is not) in it. These are some lower-sugar swaps for high-sugar foods.

Hidden sugars can sneak into your diet, but not if you are savvy! By knowing how to recognize them and what foods you can choose instead of high-sugar foods, you can limit the amount of added sugar in your diet, and that can have all kinds of benefits for health and weight.

References

  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/added-sugar/art-20045328
  2. Drewnowski A, Rehm CD. Consumption of added sugars among US children and adults by food purchase location and food source. AJCN. 100(3); September 2014: 901–907.

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