Uncovering Hidden Sugars

Being a registered dietitian, or being related to one, doesn’t provide a free pass from the same frustrations that everyone else has when trying to purchase healthy foods. 

For example, my oldest daughter and I recently went through her pantry looking for added sugar in the foods she and her family regularly eat. My daughter was shocked to find that quite a few of the foods marketed as “healthy” contained, not just one, but many sources of added sugar.

She was even more surprised to find that there are numerous sources and names of sugar, so we can’t simply look for it to be spelled out as   S-U-G-A-R in the food ingredients list.  For example, one of their cereals, marketed as healthy, had three sources of sugar listed within the first four ingredients.

Needless to say, she was somewhat deflated and recommended that this be the topic of my next blog.


Become a great added sugar detective!  

What is added sugar in foods?

It is any type of sugar added to foods that does not naturally occur in that food or the ingredients within the product.  For example, applesauce with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the ingredients list includes added sugar in the form of HFCS.


What are naturally occurring sugars?

They are simple carbohydrates that consist of:

  1. Monosaccharides - (glucose, fructose, galactose) each being made up of one single sugar molecule
  2. Disaccharides – (maltose, sucrose, lactose) each being made up of two monosaccharides linked together


What are the main naturally occurring sugars found in foods?

  1. Fructose (a.k.a. fruit sugar, levulose) – a monosaccharide found in fruits, honey, and saps
  2. Lactose (a.k.a. milk sugar) – a disaccharide made up of galactose and glucose that is the main carbohydrate in milk and other dairy products.
  3. Maltose (a.k.a. malt sugar) – a disaccharide made up of two glucose molecules made when starches in plants break down. 
  4. Sucrose (a.k.a. table sugar, refined sugar, beet sugar, cane sugar, etc.) – a disaccharide made up of fructose and glucose found in fruits, some vegetables and grains. Table sugar is made of processed and granulated juices of sugarcane and sugar beets. 

Are all added sugars in foods bad?

No, because some foods need sugar for specific functions such as reducing bitterness, adding texture, helping ferment yeast, chemical reactions to provide color and/or flavor, and to preserve and/or make foods more shelf stable. However, the quality and the amount of the sweetener used is important.


Do all foods with sugars on the NFL (Nutrition Facts Label) contain added sugars?

No, because, as reported above, there are naturally occurring sugars in foods such as milk.

For example, if you look at the NFL on plain 1% cow’s milk you will see sugars listed on the NFL but not in the ingredients list because it contains naturally occurring lactose and but not added sugar.

HOWEVER, if you look at the NFL and ingredients list for 1% chocolate cow’s milk, you will see higher grams of sugar, higher calories, and sugar sources listed in the ingredients list because sugary chocolate flavoring was probably added to the product.

Is Added Sugar a Punishable Offense?

1.     At times, yes, because it provides “empty calories” that are not “nutrient dense”, which means the added sugars provide energy (calories) but lack important nutrients that our bodies need. For example, a person could consume a diet loaded with sugar laden foods and stay within their daily calorie and weight goal but have major nutritional deficiencies while possibly increasing their risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.  

2.    Another example would be if a person is unaware of how many daily calories their body needs and consumes extra calories, via sugar laden foods such as snacks, desserts, candy, drinks, etc., they exponentially raise their risk of obesity, weight gain, tooth decay, elevated triglycerides, elevated blood glucose levels, and the list goes on.

3.  Some foods can be very healthy and contain natural sugars but are made less healthy by what is added to them. For example, plain yogurt with fresh fruit added by you is much better than many of the pre-mixed yogurts with fruit because they often contain many added sugary flavoring as well as the added fruit. 

See the picture below comparing a few nutrition labels from my pantry and it is easy to see the nutritional and caloric differences between these three foods. 

How much daily added sugar is recommended for the general public?

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than 10% of your total daily calorie needs, so when following a 2,000-daily calorie eating pattern, there should be no more than 200 calories from added sugar. See how quickly it can add up and exceed our daily limit when it’s added in our foods without us even realizing it.

One teaspoon of white table sugar has approximately 16 calories, so in the example above, that would be 12 ½ teaspoons however, honey has approximately 22 calories per teaspoon, so that is only 9 teaspoons. Not all sugar sources have the same number of calories, so read the product label to know. 

How do you find added sugar in the foods you buy?

Read the NFL and ingredients lists of some of the worst offenders and you'll find many words from the list below!

You may be surprised to learn that the following foods are often loaded with added sugar: 

Ketchup, barbecue sauce, salad dressings, granolas, granola and protein bars, canned tomatoes, canned tomato products such as pasta sauces and soups,  yogurt, flavored oatmeals, cereals, energy and sports drinks, fruits in syrup, dried fruits with added sugar, bottled "healthy" drinks such as tea and smoothies, and the list could go on forever. 

Updated Nutrition Facts Label Coming Soon!

Unfortunately it is not required by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) until July 26, 2018, but, as of that date, the nutrition facts panel on our foods will have to include the amount of added sugar.

See the picture below to see the comparison of the old and new label, with the added sugar area highlighted in green.


Knowledge is power!

Now that you're an expert, your assignment is to find out how much added sugar you and your loved ones are really consuming and, if it is entirely too much, find alternate brands or foods with lower amounts or zero added sugars.