Beware of Health Foods and Beverages Packed With Added Sugars


Many so-called healthy foods and beverages are full of added sugars. Sometimes we purposely add sugar to our food.  But most added sugar comes from processed and prepared foods.

Some sugars are found naturally in foods — like vegetables, milk, and fruits.  According to Dr. Andrew Bremer, a pediatrician and National Institutes of Health (NIH) expert on sweeteners, “When you eat an orange, for instance, you’re getting a lot of nutrients and dietary fiber along with the natural sugars.”

The human body needs one type of sugar, called glucose, to survive.  Dr. Kristina Rother, another pediatrician and NIH expert on sweeteners says, “Glucose is the number one food for the brain, and it’s an extremely important source of fuel throughout the body.”

Added Sugars in Food and Beverages

Health professionals suggest that sugar is most likely to blame for the obesity epidemic, as well as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day for the average woman and no more than nine teaspoons for the average man. But American adults consume 22 teaspoons of sugar per day, while the kids are consuming a daily average of 32 teaspoons.

Sugar-sweetened beverages like sports drinks, energy drinks, and soda are the leading source of added sugars in the American diet.  Breakfast cereals are the second most serious source of food products that contain added sugars.

Food manufacturers may use multiple forms of sugar to avoid having “sugar” listed as the first ingredient.  Each added sugar is disguised by being listed with a different name.  They may also list each one individually on the nutrient label. By using this tactic, sugars are represented separately in smaller amounts, making it more difficult for consumers to determine how much overall sugar is in a product.

Harvard University’s School of Public Health offers the following suggestion:

“Don’t be fooled.  Your body metabolizes all added sugars the same way; it doesn’t distinguish between “brown sugar” and “honey.” When reading a label, make sure you spot all sources of added sugars even if they’re not listed as the first few ingredients.”

Paying attention to total sugar is the key.

Food and Beverages with Artificial Sweeteners

Sugars are usually added to help make foods and drinks taste better.  But foods with added sugars can be high in calories.  They don’t offer the healthful benefits of fruits and other naturally sweet foods.

The following foods and beverages are packed with added sugars:

Sugar-sweetened beverages

Soft drinks are a prime source of extra calories that can contribute to weight gain and provide no nutritional benefits.  They contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions, according to health experts.

The average can of sugar-sweetened soda or fruit punch provides about 150 calories — almost all of them from sugar — usually high-fructose corn syrup.  That’s equivalent to 10 teaspoons of table sugar.

Drinking just one can of a sugar-sweetened soft drink every day, and not cutting back on calories, could cause a person to gain 10-15 pounds in a year.

Cereals and other foods

Choosing whole, unprocessed breakfast foods — like an apple, or a bowl of steel-cut or old-fashioned oatmeal — is a great way to avoid eating added sugars. Unfortunately, many common breakfast foods, like instant oatmeal with added flavoring, cereal bars, pastries, and ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, can contain high amounts of added sugars.

Flavored yogurt

The protein, calcium, and probiotics found in yogurt make it a great choice.  But the added sugar is terribly unhealthy.

In general, a 6-ounce container of plain yogurt has about 12 grams of naturally occurring sugar in the form of lactose.  We have to do some math to try and figure out how much added sugar is in yogurt.  Nutrition labels don’t require the separation of naturally occurring and added sugars.

For example, Yoplait Thick and Creamy Blackberry Harvest’s label lists 28 grams of sugar.  If you subtract 12 grams from the 28 grams of sugars, you know that the product contains 16 grams of added sugar. That equates to four teaspoons of added sugar in a six-ounce serving.

Vitamin drinks

Water filled with antioxidants and vitamins sound like a great idea.  But water that’s filled with antioxidants, vitamins, and eight teaspoons of sugar is easier to sell.  Popular brands of vitamin and antioxidant water regularly deliver up to 32 grams of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle. Even though that’s less sugar than is found in most sodas, it’s still eight teaspoons of sugar in your healthy drink.

Nutrition bars

In a 2013 survey, seven nutrition bars were found to be worse than candy.  One nutrition bar included 32 grams of sugar — eight teaspoons of sugar. And there were many more that were found to be nearly as unhealthy.

Tomato sauce

Tomato sauce is a low-fat source of lycopene, an important compound associated with reduced risk of cancer.  It also has a variety of vitamins and antioxidants.

A pinch of sugar added to a large pot of simmering tomato sauce you make at home really enhances the flavor.  But some leading brands of tomato sauce have as much as 15 grams per half-cup serving, and few people only use half a cup of sauce.

That’s like sprinkling more than four teaspoons of sugar on your food.

Barbecue sauce

One popular brand of barbecue sauce has 15 grams of sugar in two tablespoons.  That’s equivalent to almost four teaspoons of sugar in two tablespoons of sauce.  Chocolate syrup typically has about 19 grams of sugar in the same serving size.

How to Spot Added Sugar on Food Labels

Many health organizations and experts recommend cutting back on added sugars.

Spotting added sugars on food labels can be hard to identify. Though food and beverage manufacturers list a product’s total amount of sugar per serving on the Nutrition Facts Panel, they are not required to list how much of that sugar is added sugars, versus naturally occurring sugar.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) briefly explains how to identify added sugars in food and beverages.

“On a list of ingredients, they may be listed as sucrose (table sugar), corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit-juice concentrates, nectars, raw sugar, malt syrup, maple syrup, fructose sweeteners, liquid fructose, honey, molasses, anhydrous dextrose, or other words ending in “-ose,” the chemical suffix for sugars. If any of these words are among the first few ingredients on a food label, the food is likely high in sugar. The total amount of sugar in a food is listed under “Total Carbohydrate” on the Nutrition Facts label.”

Cutting Back on Sugar

There’s no nutritional need or health benefit that comes from consuming added sugars.  A good rule of thumb is to avoid products that have a lot of added sugar, including skipping foods that list “sugar” as the first or second ingredient.

NIH offers the following tips on cutting back on added sugars:

  • Choose water, fat-free milk, or unsweetened tea or coffee instead of sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and fruit drinks.
  • Reduce sugar in recipes. If a recipe says 1 cup, use 2/3 cup.
  • To enhance flavor, add vanilla, cinnamon, or nutmeg.
  • Eat fresh, canned, frozen, and dried fruits without added sugar. Choose fruits canned in their own juice rather than syrup.
  • Use fruits to top foods like cereal and pancakes rather than sugars, syrups, or other sweet toppings.
  • Read the ingredients list to pick food with little or no added sugar.
  • Use the Nutrition Facts label to choose packaged foods with less total sugar.

The key to good health is eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods and getting plenty of physical activity.  Focus on nutrition-rich whole foods without added sugars.

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George Zapo, CPH
George Zapo, CPH is certified in Public Health Promotion & Education. George focuses on writing informative articles promoting healthy behavior and lifestyles. Read more of George's articles at his website: