Most people know that sugar is our waistline’s No. 1 enemy. And we are savvy enough to recognize the usual suspects where sugar tends to congregate: soda, candy, cookies, cake, ice cream, jelly. But sugar has a serious stealth factor—plenty of seemingly healthier options are more sugar-laden than we suspect. For example, even if you think you are making a virtuous breakfast choice by eating raisin bran chased with a glass of orange juice, you’ve just consumed more sugar than a donut and soda.
If sugar, that wily trickster, is hard for you to track, you are not alone. As it turns out, a recent national survey of 1000 people, the Atkins Sugar Gap Study, found that 4 out of 5 of us are confused about how certain foods affect our bodies. The study primarily investigated the “hidden sugar effect”—how the body converts foods into sugar during the digestive process, also known as a food’s glycemic load.
In many processed carbs, the grams of starches correspond—once digested—to grams of glucose. White bread and pasta, even if they have no added sugar, are high glycemic foods, meaning they can wreak havoc with our blood sugar levels—the body doesn’t distinguish between a Snickers bar or a bowl of noodles. This is especially concerning if you struggle with diabetes or obesity.
Even more tellingly, the report also laid bare our sugar biases. For example, sugar levels in most juices is the equivalent of a soda. Juice tends to contain natural sugars from fruit (fructose), while soda contains refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Still, on your blood sugar, the two drinks are equal. Yet most people surveyed tended to think of soda as the biggest offender.
How do we set some parameters around our sugar intake? Typically Americans slug or chomp down roughly 20 teaspoons of sugar a day. The most recent recommendation from the the American Heart Association, however, suggests that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of sweetener per day and men no more than 9 teaspoons (38 grams).
To avoid packing on the sugar, you need to become a label sleuth and eye ingredient labels with discrimination. Labels measure sugar in terms of grams: One teaspoon of granulated sugar equals 4 grams. In other words, 8 grams of sugar in a product is equal to about 2 teaspoons of granulated sugar. A good rule of thumb: If sugar is listed in the top three ingredients, give the item a miss. Here’s what else to avoid in these five surprising sugar bombs.
Although a lot of juice doesn’t contain added sugars, juice has no fiber and tends to be loaded with fructose (fruit sugar).
Instead: Opt for a piece of fruit instead, which contains fiber, essential for reducing heart disease risk, controlling weight and maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
2. Fruit yogurt
Even though it sounds healthy, flavored yogurt is a bona fide sugar bomb, often containing just as much sugar as ice cream. If it tastes like a dessert, it is—there may be a whopping 4 to 5 teaspoons of sugar per cup.
Instead: Choose plain yogurt as your base and then add your own sliced fruit, a teaspoon of jam or a teaspoon of natural sweetener.
3. Barbecue sauce
One cup of pulled pork, with barbecue sauce, contains 38 grams of sugar—that’s more than nine teaspoons. Condiments like these are sugar hotspots, adding up quickly and pushing us past our daily intake limits. One individual Ketchup packet, for example contains 2 grams of sugar.
Instead: Dilute your barbecue sauce with vinegar, lemon or even chicken broth to cut the sweetness. You can also eyeball labels till you find a brand that goes easy on the sugar, such as Annie’s, which only contains 4 grams of sugar per serving.
4. Dried fruit
Dried fruit sounds healthy but can be tantamount to candy, especially if it has added sugar. Just ⅓ of a cup can have 24 grams of sugar. Always check the ingredient list to make sure to make sure it’s nothing but the fruit.
Instead: In small amounts, dried fruit can be a decent snack, especially if you combine it with nuts to slow down the sugar rush. Make sure to choose all-natural options that list only the fruit as the ingredient.
5. Salad dressing
Some dressings, particularly fat-free ones, use sugar to make up for the lack of tasty fat. Many contain upwards of 6 grams of sugar per tablespoon.
Instead: Make your own dressing at home, or when on the go, improvise a light dressing made from a dash of olive oil and a spritz of fresh lemon.