If there’s one thing everyone should bear in mind when food shopping, it's that just because something is branded with “organic,” “wholesome,” "vegan," “gluten-free,” or “lite,” (that last one = major sigh) doesn’t mean it’s nutrient-dense or healthy. An organic, plant-based, allergy-friendly cookie is still a cookie. Delicious in its own right, and without any need to disguise its identity and dress it up as something other than a sweet snack.
The point? Don’t be fooled by the front of the package. “Marketing is designed to shift our beliefs, so it’s super important to read past all the flashy headlines on labels and turn on your wisdom when checking out foods,” says Molly Carmel, LCSW-R, a social worker, food addiction specialist, and scientific advisor to Sugarbreak. “Don’t be swindled by the promises on the front of the package—instead, head to the back of the package where the nutrition information lives." In doing so, she suggests looking at three different parts of the product's label: fiber, sugar, and protein content. "Ideally, you want your food to be high fiber, low sugar, and high protein, which promises to be more nutrient-rich, more satisfying, and less likely to cause fluctuations in blood sugar. Finally, I would also look at the ingredient list, hoping that at least the first four ingredients are free from sugar, artificial sugar, and all of their aliases."
This brings us back to that idea that something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. “The FDA has a rounding rule,” explains Katie Thomson, MS, RD and the co-founder and CEO of Square Baby. “For example, a product that contains less than half a gram of sugar is rounded down to zero grams. So that sweet cereal with a small amount of sugar could be labeled as ‘zero grams of sugar’ without it actually being true.”
So sugar-free doesn’t necessarily mean sugar-free. Many so-called sugar-free candies, sweets, and gums also contain artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols (such as xylitol or sorbitol), which can cause bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and other stomach upsets when consumed in large quantities. “As their name indicates, artificial sweeteners are artificial,” says Dr. Ryan Greene, D.O., M.S., an osteopathic physician specializing in human performance, sports medicine, and nutrition and the founder of Monarch WEHO. “They are chemicals designed to stimulate receptors on our tongue to increase palatability and, in some cases, they can stimulate the same elevated glycemic and insulin response people are trying to avoid by choosing products with less traditional sweetening.”
Moreover, more and more studies are finding that consuming artificial sweeteners tricks our taste buds to develop a need for foods that are as sweet as artificial sweeteners. “Most artificial sweeteners are between 200 to 600 times the sweetness of table sugar, meaning our brains and bodies are then trained to want that kind of sweet all of the time,” adds Carmel.
So, what foods are the biggest offenders when it comes to hidden sugars? Here’s a look at 12 that can pack a secretly sweet punch. There's no need to avoid any of them; just be sure to read the ingredient list and nutritional information on these products before you buy.
12 sugary foods that may take you by surprise
1. Flavored Yogurt
Yogurt is a go-to convenient breakfast or snack for many people because it’s high in protein and provides your gut with microbiome-friendly probiotics. “However, when you buy flavored yogurts, you may be consuming up to three to four teaspoons of sugar or more per serving," says Amy Shapiro MS, RD, CDN and Agni nutrition advisor. This holds true for options that come with a sidecar of jam or honey. "So while you might be getting your protein in, you're getting it with a lot of sugar. Read labels, opt for plain flavors, and sweeten them yourself with fresh fruit, nuts, and spices like cinnamon."
2. Acaí Bowls
Acaí bowls wear the health halo loud and proud. “They are at almost every organic, vegan, healthy food restaurant and cafe you come across, so it can be easier than easy to believe that eating an acaí bowl is nourishing yourself with vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants. But if you peek behind the curtain, you’ll see a completely different story, especially with sugar content,” says Carmel. “An average acaí bowl has between 21-62 grams of added sugar per serving—those numbers are super dependent on the high-sugar toppings like agave, chocolate chips, sweetened coconut, granola, peanut butter, and so on. Instead, try a plain greek yogurt topped with fruit, seeds, and unsweetened nut butter.” Keep in mind that acaí berries actually contain zero grams of added sugar, so feel free to whip up an acaí bowl at home using a unsweetened option like those from Sambazon and adding your own toppings, too.
3. Oat Milk
Everyone is obsessed with oat milk these days, but according to Shapiro, many brands contain over 15 grams of sugar per cup. “Just because it’s a non-dairy milk doesn't mean it's the best choice for you,” says Shapiro. “Read labels and ask your barista for ‘unsweetened.’ If you can’t find unsweetened, consider changing your order to something without milk or to something that uses less milk if you're hoping to avoid added sugar. For example, instead of a latte, consider a cortado.”
4. Store-Bought Smoothies
It’s usually best for your health and wallet to make smoothies at home. “Many places add fruit juice concentrate, frozen yogurt, sweetened milks, and maple syrup, which will all increase the amount of sugar you’re drinking,” says Shapiro. “You might think you’re enjoying a green smoothie, but really you might be drinking a milkshake!” Again, nothing wrong with drinking a milkshake... but wouldn't you rather yours looked and tasted like one instead of hiding in a spinach-colored disguise?
5. 100 Calorie Packs
These continue to haunt our supermarket shelves. “The focus on calorie count distracts us from the low quality of the ingredients: These items are highly processed and often mostly made out of sugar or flours that will quickly convert into sugar when you eat them,” says Shapiro. “Instead of an imitation cookie or muffin, I recommend eating the real thing made from the highest quality ingredients possible, and just enjoying it. You'll be more satisfied and will consume less sugar overall at the end of the day.”
6. Organic Fruit Juice
“So many of us were led to believe since childhood that juice is an effective way to quickly get vitamins and nutrients, but that’s not entirely true," says Carmel. "Juice—organic or out of the squeezebox—is straight-up sugar without the fiber to slow it down as it hits your bloodstream. Overconsumption can lead to fatty liver disease and all sorts of health problems. A way better alternative is to eat fruit in its whole form. The natural fiber allows for you to digest the food more slowly, keep you fuller for longer, and experience a less intense blood sugar spike.”
7. Protein Bars
Many protein bars have got us fooled. “You’d think, given the name and the marketing, that these bars would be loaded with protein—meaning a nice, healthy burst of energy, but that is so not the case,” says Carmel. “It’s pretty shocking to take a look at the ingredient label of some of our favorite protein bars and see that the sugar levels resemble that of a candy bar, and the protein levels are that of a slice of turkey.” She singles out, for example, one very popular product whose first ingredient is brown rice syrup—aka pure sugar—and boasts 20 grams of added sugar, only nine grams of protein and four grams of fiber. One Krispy Kreme doughnut, by comparison, contains 10 grams of sugar, three grams of protein and less than one gram of fiber. Check this guide to see if your favorite protein bar meets an RD's healthy criteria.
8. Many Brands of Wheat Bread
“We are led to think that all wheat bread is healthy because it’s brown and often has the word ‘whole’ as well as ‘wheat’ in it,” says Carmel. “Many brands of wheat bread—or as I like to call them, white bread painted brown—are really just milled flour, which takes away most of the minerals, nutrients, and fiber. This causes spikes in your blood sugar and insulin levels, just like white bread would.” To add insult to injury, she says that many wheat breads also have added sugar, which you wouldn’t expect or even notice unless you looked at the nutrition facts. “Instead, try my favorite sprouted grain bread, Ezekiel Bread, which has lots of protein, fiber, and is more slowly digested, keeping you fuller for longer.”
9. Oatmeal Packets
Oatmeal can be a super sneaky source of so much sugar. “While it’s amazing, healthy, and great for you—not to mention satisfying and fulfilling in its unsweetened whole steel-oat form—that is just not usually how we’re eating it,” says Carmel. “We’re eating it as single-serve, super-refined, flavored packets. One pack of maple and brown sugar instant oatmeal contains six to 12 grams of sugar! Same goes for those on-the-go quick-oats with all the sugary toppings including honey, maple syrup, granola, sweetened coconut, and the like.” This is a big bummer, because nutritionally speaking, plain oats are a near-perfect food. To make them more convenient, make overnight oats in a grab-and-go jar in the evening and top them with nut butter and fresh fruit in the morning.
Granola is a popular breakfast and delicious snack that many eat mindlessly assuming it’s exceedingly nutritious. “Oftentimes, however, the serving sizes are super small—a quarter cup is standard—for a hefty amount of saturated fat and added sugars,” says Shapiro. “Many are sweetened with honey, brown sugar, and/or maple syrup, so read labels. You can also make your own and use half the amount of added sugar or none at all, or choose a variety that uses less sugar. I recommend less than eight grams per serving.”
11. Pasta Sauce
But pasta is savory, you say. “Pasta sauce can be a surprising source of sugar,” says Thomson. “Look for jars with zero grams of added sugar.” Pasta sauces with no sugar also tend to be low in salt.
12. Sports Drinks and Electrolyte Beverages
“While it may not come as a surprise that sports and vitamin drinks have added sugar, it’s important to know that there are few situations in which a sugary electrolyte beverage is necessary for proper hydration,” says Thomson. “Unless an adult or child has had 60 minutes or more of intense physical activity—such as long distance running, biking, or soccer—it's fine to stick to plain water.”
Learn more about the effects of sugar on the body according to a registered dietitian here:
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