Today, the average adult living in the U.S. consumes about 22 teaspoons of added sugars every single day, including from hidden sugar foods they might actually believe are “healthy.” Compare this to the amount of added sugar recommended by authorities such as the World Health Organization and American Heart Association: no more than six teaspoons or about 100 calories a day of added sugar for most women, or nine teaspoons (150 calories) per day for most men. (1, 2) This equates to no more than about 5 percent to 10 percent of total calories, which in many ways in still a significant amount.
While there’s lots of conflicting theories about which type of diet is healthiest and most likely to protect against chronic diseases or obesity, limiting your intake of added sugar foods turns out to be one of the few things nearly all health experts agree on. The U.S. Department of Agriculture states, “Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared. This does not include naturally occurring sugars such as those in milk and fruits.” (3)
Added sugar intake is a real problem in most industrialized nations and, due to how cheap it is to produce, today even less developed nations too. Consuming lots of added or hidden sugar has been found to be associated with problems including diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, high blood pressure, and cognitive disorders, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Sugar is now even linked to cancer and many other conditions tied to impaired immune function.
If you’re already convinced that kicking your sugar addiction is well worth any extra effort or trade-offs involved, the next step is to learn just how to do it. Below you’ll learn more about hidden sugar foods to carefully avoid, various names that hidden sweeteners and processed sugar now go by, and healthier low-sugar alternatives to start exploring instead.
10 Places Sugar Is Hiding in Your Diet (Hidden Sugar Foods)
Studies and surveys have found that the major food and beverage sources of added sugars for Americans, whether they’re aware of it or not, are:
regular soft drinks/sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks
desserts or snacks, including cakes, cookies, pies and cobblers
refined carbohydrates like sweet rolls, pastries and doughnuts
sweetened teas and fruit drinks, such as iced tea, fruit punch, etc.
dairy desserts, including ice cream
These sources of sugar might seem pretty obvious, but they aren’t the only foods responsible for world’s increased sugar consumption. Added sugars are found in thousands of common food and beverages found in most grocery stores, including “natural” and organic foods sold at health food stores. Most research suggests that for both genders and nearly all age groups, a combination of sugary non-alcoholic beverages (e.g., soft drinks and fruit-flavored drinks) and processed grain products (e.g., sweet bakery products) are where the highest percentage of hidden sugars are found. (4)
Here are 10 of the most common “healthy” foods that actually have lots of sugar hiding in them: (5)
- Cereals, including hot cereals like flavored oatmeal
- Packaged breads, including “whole grain” kinds
- Snack or granola bars
- “Lower calorie” drinks, including coffees, energy drinks, blended juices and teas
- Protein bars and meal replacements
- Sweetened yogurts and other dairy products (like flavored kefir, frozen yogurt, etc.)
- Frozen waffles or pancakes
- Bottled sauces, dressings, condiments and marinades (like tomato sauce, ketchup, relish or teriyaki, for example)
- Dried fruit and other fruit snacks
- Restaurant foods, where sugar is used in sauces, various desserts and dressings for extra flavor
What makes avoiding sugar so confusing or difficult for most people is this: Not all sugar is inherently bad, and not all types of “sugar” are created equal. Something important to point out here is that added sugar is the real problem, not sugar in the form of fructose found in things like fresh fruit.
Fructose, the type of natural sugar found in modest amounts in real foods like fruits and even vegetables, is generally not something to worry about when consumed as part of a balanced diet because it’s metabolized differently than when ingested in high amounts from processed foods. In fact, studies show that people consuming more of these fresh plant foods experience increased protection against many of the same diseases that added sugar contributes to (heart disease, cancer, etc.).
The real problem lays in consuming hidden sugar foods like sweetened yogurts, cereals, snack bars, juices and other drinks that contain lots of refined “white” sugar and very high amounts of fructose. The primary difference between something like fruit and soda is this: Processed foods supply lots of sugar in the form of ingredients like high fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin, without also providing you with fiber, healthy fats or protein to slow down sugar absorption.
It’s estimated that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) alone now accounts for nearly 40 percent of all caloric sweeteners used in the U.S. HFCS is especially common in sources of “empty calories” like soda — including diet soda — sweetened teas, desserts and candy. (6) As of 2004, the average American got roughly 8 percent of his or her total energy intake from HFCS compared to 17 percent from all added sugars combined (about 377 calories per day/person). Processed sweeteners like HFCS and other isolated sugars have been found to be sweeter and less expensive than other added sweeteners (such as honey), allowing food and beverage manufacturers to increase the sweetness of their products at very low cost. This has led to an increase in the intensity of sweetness in many foods, increased calories consumed from sweets, and higher chance for sugar dependency or “addiction.”
Why Hidden Sugar Is So Problematic
Why exactly is sugar bad for you? A large body of research now shows that consuming lots of added sugars negatively impacts just about every organ system in the body — increasing your risk for most of the common chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even cancer. Sugar has been shown to lead to microbial changes in the digestive system, interfering with gut health and increasing inflammation levels. It’s also a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.
Keep in mind that hidden sugar is called “hidden” for a reason — added sugar goes by many different names today, most of which don’t sound anything like “sugar.” Whatever the wording used to describe the type of added sweetener, all names for sugar mean the same thing: Put the food down! According to the USDA and other sources, alternative sugar ingredients or names to watch out for when reading labels include:
- Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup
- Dextrose or crystal dextrose
- Evaporated cane juice or fruit juice
- Carob syrup
- Brown sugar
- Raw sugar
- Dextrin and maltodextrin
- Rice syrup
- Evaporated corn sweetener
- Confectioner’s powdered sugar
- Agave nectar
- Other fruit nectars (for example, pear nectar)
There also “healthier” sugars, including coconut palm sugar, honey and blackstrap molasses. Generally since these are far less processed (especially real, raw honey), they are OK in moderation but still a source of sugar to keep to small amounts.
5 Side Effects and Health Risks Associated with Sugar Foods
1. Lead to Cravings for More
You’ve probably noticed that the more sugar you have, the more you want. Sugar is very habit-forming, causing changes in the”reward system” in our brains by releasing dopamine and other endorphins. Our brains have certain built-in, appetite-controlling mechanisms that let us know when we’ve had enough to eat and therefore should stop, causing most foods to stop being appealing after some time.
Sugar works differently, keeping us wanting more and more even when we’ve consumed lots of calories. It’s much easier to overeat something that is very sweet and processed (like cookies or ice cream) compared to something that is in its natural state, bulkier and takes longer to eat. Sugar has strong “hedonic reward value” in the brain, meaning it’s closely linked to areas of the brain responsible for sensory perceptions (food tastes, odors and textures) that are the driving forces behind the motivation to eat.
Studies have found that added sugar (glucose and fructose) may influence eating behaviors through activating multiple sweet-tasting mechanisms in both the mouth and gut. Glucose has been shown to impact brain-reward regions and eating behaviors directly by crossing the blood–brain barrier and indirectly by affecting neural input, oral detectors in our mouths and also intestinal sugar-sensors in our digestive systems. (7)
Other foods that don’t taste sweet seem to be metabolized differently, often making it easier to control portions. There’s even been parallels found between sugar overconsumption and drug abuse, indicating that sugar cravings work in similar ways to cravings for alcohol and other substances.
2. Rob You of Sustained Energy and Focus
It’s common to feel an initial “sugar high” or burst of energy after having something very sweet, but give it a couple hours and you’re likely to feel a crash. Consuming sugar foods causes a spike in blood glucose levels, which then leads to a fall. This takes a toll on your energy, not to mention your concentration, digestion, cravings and mood.
The energy spike-and-dip associated with sugar intake has to do with its effects on various physiological processes, including endocrine regulations like insulin, leptin and glucagon secretion. Sugar can also impact digestion and psycho-behaviors due to inhibition of gastric (stomach) emptying, inhibition of healthy food intake and stimulation in the brain for regions that make you crave more.
3. Increase Obesity Risk
One of the biggest problems resulting from eating more sugary foods and processed grains is that it limits the amount of fresh produce and other nutrient-dense foods people consume daily. The World Health Organization states, “Higher intakes of free sugars threaten the nutrient quality of diets by providing significant energy (calories) without specific nutrients.”
Particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, sugar often leads to overall high energy intake, nutrient deficiencies despite gaining weight, and increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure that are linked to obesity.
4. Alter Gut Health and Immunity
Researchers now believe sugar, among other poor dietary factors like eating too little vegetables and other plant-based foods, changes the gut microbiota in a way that increases intestinal permeability, also called leaky gut syndrome. (8) Leaky gut causes impairments in immune function and a plethora of different symptoms depending on the person, ranging from skin breakouts to increased allergies. Chronic, low-grade inflammation stemming from poor gut health and deficiencies can lead to the transfer of harmful substances from the gut into the bloodstream. (9)
Recent research even suggests that high amounts of dietary sugar that are typical in the Western diet may increase the risk of breast cancer and metastasis to the lungs. (10) Whether directly or indirectly, other research hints at a connection between high intake of added sugars and risk for colon or esophageal cancer. (11)
5. Increase Your Risk for Diabetes and Heart Disease
It’s true that refined, inflammatory fats (like trans fats or hydrogenated fats found in fried foods and packaged goods) do contribute to conditions like heart attacks, but many don’t realize that sugar is another major culprit behind heart problems, not to mention diabetes.
Recently, studies have found that sugar can significantly increase your risk of dying from metabolic syndrome or cardiovascular diseases, and people getting around 20 percent of their calories from added sugar face a 38 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who get just 8 percent. (12)
6 Tips and Alternatives to Hidden Sugar Foods
1. Use Natural Sweeteners (in Moderation!)
My five favorite natural sweeteners and sugar substitutes are raw honey, stevia, dates, coconut sugar and pure, organic maple syrup. When cooking, baking or preparing foods at home, try to replace cane/white/fake sugars with real sweeteners, being sure to still keep portions on the small side.
Natural sugar substitutes can give you the taste you’re looking for with less synthetic additives, calories and dependency. While it might be tempting, I recommend definitely avoiding artificial sweeteners, which research shows are likely linked with many health concerns.
2. Nix Your Sugar Habit by Consuming More Healthy Fats
If your diet doesn’t include enough healthy fats, or adequate protein, you’re likely to feel hungrier throughout the day and be more impacted by cravings or fatigue. Try to include a serving of healthy fat with every meal, starting first thing with breakfast.
Healthy fats that can help reduce sugar cravings include coconut or olive oil, avocado, raw dairy, nuts, and seeds like flaxseeds (or flaxseed oil). Aiming to have some veggies, protein and healthy fat with every meal naturally reduces your intake of processed grains and flour products — like bread, sweet rolls and others that don’t provide much benefit.
3. Watch Your Sugar Intake at Breakfast
Breakfast is one of the most likely times of day to fall victim to hidden sugar. Sugar foods commonly eaten for breakfast include waffles or pancakes, granola or granola carbs, cereal, juices, canned fruit, sweetened coffee drinks, and others. A better idea is to start your day with something balanced like 100 whole unprocessed grains (quinoa or steel cut oats, for example) and fruit, nuts and seeds, eggs with veggies, or a shake/smoothie made with protein powder.
4. Rethink Your Snacks
Hidden sugar foods that many people turn to thinking they’re eating something “healthy” include protein bars, flavored yogurts and flavored, roasted nuts. I recommend snacks like a couple hard-boiled eggs, freshly made juice or smoothie, or some fruit with nuts.
5. Don’t Drink Your Calories
Beverages shouldn’t provide you with many calories every day (that’s what food is for!) and definitely not lots of sugar. Stick with unsweetened drinks like water or club soda, herbal tea, green tea, kombucha, unsweetened coconut water or mostly black/plain coffee (in moderation of course).
6. Make Your Own Sauces, Juices and Smoothies Instead
If you find yourself consuming lots of added sugar from things like dressings, pasta sauces, juices or smoothies, I recommend making your own at home instead of buying bottled kinds. Try a low-sugar berry smoothie for breakfast, juicing mostly vegetables with an apple and lemon juice, preparing your own salad dressing with olive oil and vinegar, or eating a big superfood salad any time of day to satisfy hunger and get your fruits and veggies in the right way.
Final Thoughts on Hidden Sugar Foods, Side Effects and Alternatives
- Hidden sugar foods include refined grains products like cereal and bread, yogurt, juices and other drinks, sauces, and condiments. Consuming lots of added sugar can significantly increase your risk of not only weight gain/obesity, but also early death and diseases like heart disease or diabetes.
- There are dozens of names for added and hidden sugars on ingredient labels. Simply dialing back on processed foods and drinks and consuming more fresh food or plain water instead can significantly lower your hidden sugar intake.
- Read ingredient labels to avoid being fooled by hidden sugar foods. If you do use sugar when cooking or baking, use less processed forms like raw honey or organic coconut sugar, but still use them sparingly.