Sneaky sources of added sugar

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There is a common misconception that sugar is only present in foods known to be sweet – sugary drinks, desserts and candies. Yes, these are the obvious culprits. But what about the ketchup you dip your fries in, the dressing you drizzle liberally over your salad, or the bread you use for sandwiches?

None of these foods seem particularly bad to you, but they all contain added sugars that can quickly reduce your daily calorie intake. Although organizations such as the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend limiting your sugar intake, Americans still consume about 17 teaspoons of added sugars (272 calories) per day. To help prevent these sugars from impacting your health or waistline, we’ve highlighted nearly a dozen different food items that contain a surprisingly high amount of added sugars.

Is sugar bad for you?

When you hear the word sugar, savory sweets, desserts, and sugary drinks tend to come to mind. These are known as added sugars. You can also consume sugars naturally by eating fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

These foods contain carbohydrates. During the digestion process, starches turn into sugar called glucose. Glucose enters your bloodstream and serves as the main fuel source for the body. Simply put, you need sugar – as long as you get it from the right sources.

Eating foods with too many added sugars can cause insulin resistance in which your body does not respond to insulin. This causes a domino of events that leads to high blood sugar. When too much glucose enters the bloodstream, the pancreas works hard to pump out insulin — a hormone that helps cells and tissues use and store glucose — so blood sugar has somewhere to go.

Over time, cells become resistant to excess insulin and blood sugar continues to rise. This resistance can lead to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Meanwhile, the pancreas continues to make insulin and send excess blood sugar to the liver and muscles. The liver can only hold a certain amount of glucose, and the rest ends up in the fat cells and leads to weight gain.

Moreover, there is also a psychological effect with sugar. When digested, sugar releases dopamine, a chemical that controls how you experience pleasure. It can also increase serotonin production, which can improve your mood. For these reasons, sugar is often considered addictive.

What is added sugar?

As the name suggests, added sugars are added to foods during the manufacturing process. Examples include adding sugar to baked goods or tea to make sweet tea.

Most of the sugar Americans consume comes from sucrose, a combination of glucose and fructose more commonly known as table sugar. However, food labels are still confusing, mainly due to food manufacturers trying to hide added sugars. In other words, foods can still contain added sugars even if they don’t mention the word “sugar.”

Here are some common types of added sugars found on food labels:

  • Processed sugar molecules – fructose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose
  • Syrups – Rice syrup, maple syrup, corn syrup, brown rice syrup
  • Natural Sweeteners – Honey, Molasses, Agave
  • Processed fruit sugars – Fruit concentrates, fruit nectars (peach nectar, pear nectar), cane juice

Sugars should make up no more than 10% of your daily calorie intake, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For the average person on a 2,000 calorie diet, that equates to 200 calories or 12 teaspoons of sugar. Added sugars can add up quickly. For example, a 12 ounce can of soda can contain up to 10 teaspoons of sugar. That’s almost all of your recommended added sugar in one sitting!

Natural sugar vs added sugar

If you’ve ever bitten into a strawberry or eaten fresh corn in the summer, the sweetness your taste buds pick up is known as natural sugar. The most common natural sugars are fructose (fruit sugar), lactose (milk sugar) and maltose (found in sprouting grains).

Sugar is sugar, even though it occurs naturally, right? Yes, but context matters. Once sugar enters your body, the digestive system considers natural sugars and added sugars the same and treats them as such.

So, yes, while some fruits and vegetables are high in sugar, they also contain fiber, vitamins and minerals. The structural complexity of these foods results in a slower digestion process – as opposed to a rapid release of glucose – which leaves you feeling full longer. So you don’t have to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables before you’re full, which helps control the amount of sugar you eat.

Added sugars, on the other hand, contain no nutrients or dietary benefits to slow digestion. That’s why they’re commonly referred to as empty calories — there’s a reason you can eat half a dozen cookies full of sugar and still not feel full.

Foods with sneaky sources of sugar

Foods with added sugars

A few grams of added sugar may not seem like a lot, but it can add up quickly because there are four calories in a gram. Be aware of these hidden sugars at your next meal!

Seasoning

Ketchup, salad dressings, and barbecue sauce are the biggest offenders here. In each case, sugar is added during the manufacturing process for flavor and balance. Think of it this way: vinegar is one of the main ingredients in ketchup, salad dressings, and barbecue sauce, and sweetness is a way to keep the acidity from getting too strong.

A tablespoon of any of these condiments can contain several grams of sugar, which can add a teaspoon or more of sugar when eating a burger and fries. Look for low-sugar or no-sugar-added condiments.

Bread

Despite the long list of ingredients on packaged bread, all it takes is three simple ingredients to make it: flour, water, and a leavening agent (natural sourdough or yeast). But, like many packaged goods, sugars and salt are added to breads to enhance their flavor.

And yes, this applies to both white bread and white bread. In fact, making a sandwich with two slices of wholemeal bread add 6 grams of sugar to your meal. Pay attention to labels, too, because some organic breads may look good to you, but the addition of cane sugar and molasses adds up. 8 grams of sugar for two slices.

Fat-free products

Fat-free and low-fat products are some of the biggest culprits when it comes to added sugar. Fat equals flavor, so food manufacturers need to deliver more flavor when removing fat from their products. The solution? Add sugar to improve the taste. For example, a cup of fat-free yogurt has 18 grams of added sugars.

marinara sauce

Depending on the brand, a ½ cup of store-bought marinara sauce contains up to 4 to 5 grams of added sugars. Manufacturers add sugar to tone down the acidity of tomatoes. However, tomatoes contain enough natural sugars to provide sweetness. When shopping, look for brands that are low in sugar or no added sugar. Not all brands of tomato sauce are guilty of adding sugar, so be sure to check the labels.

Yogurt

Only dairy products contain natural sugars from lactose. On top of that, many yogurt brands add sugar to improve the taste – just ⅔ cup of vanilla yogurt has 17 grams of added sugars. The best is to choose an unsweetened whole milk yogurt.

Pizza

Between the added sugars of the pizza dough and the marinara sauce, a single slice of pizza can contain several grams of sugar. The amount of added sugar can increase even more if the pizza contains pepperoni or sausage. These processed meats often have sugar added during the manufacturing process.

Peanut Butter

In theory, peanut butter should have one ingredient – dry-roasted peanuts (perhaps with added sea salt). The reality is that many commercial jars of peanut butter contain several grams of sugar to enhance flavor. Beware of brands that have the words “high fructose corn syrup” or any type of sugar alternative in the ingredient list.

Breakfast cereals

The obvious sources of added sugars are the sugary cereals that kids love to eat. But even supposedly healthier options such as raisin bran (9 grams of added sugars per cup) or bran flakes (6 grams of added sugars per cup) contain added sugars that can sneak up on you. Regular oatmeal is a healthier breakfast alternative. You can even sprinkle fresh fruit, like strawberries, for natural sweetness.

Dried fruit

Although it sounds harmless, many types of dried fruit contain added sugars to make them taste better. Dried cranberries are a perfect example. They are too tart on their own, so sugar is added to make them more palatable. Dehydrating fruit also removes moisture, making each piece of fruit smaller than fresh fruit. This makes it easier to overeat and increases your sugar intake.

canned fruit

Again, what’s so bad about canned fruit? Most canned fruits are packed in high fructose corn syrup, which helps preserve the fruit and gives it more flavor. Fresh fruit is always the best option when available. During the winter months, look for frozen fruit in the freezer section of your grocery store.

For more hot topics and to stay up to date with the latest health news, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.

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