Surprising Sources of Added Sugar

Did you know that over 65% of the packaged food in the US contains added sweeteners? If you’re trying to wean yourself off the sweet stuff, you’re probably really good at identifying obvious sugar-containing foods—things like candies, baked treats, sweetened cereals, sugary beverages and syrups, for example. However, it’s much more challenging to suss out sugar when it is lurking in things like condiments, salad dressings, and pasta sauces. During our last Guiding Stars webinar, “Sugar Shake-Up: Examining Sugar’s Status in the Food Industry” (recording here), my colleague and fellow dietitian, Allison Stowell, and I mentioned that a blog post about “hidden” added sugar in processed foods would be a great idea. (By the way, sugar added by manufacturers is not hidden—it’s always on the food label—you just have to know what to look for.) More and more products now have the new Nutrition Facts label on the package, and that label lists “Added Sugars” in plain view—look for it.

Different types of sugar

Keep in mind, the sugar that is added to foods provides energy (calories), but nothing else in the way of nutrients. On the other hand, the sugars found naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products comes packaged with plenty of nutrients like vitamins and minerals. Therefore, the sugar we’re interested in limiting is added sugar—sweeteners added by food manufacturers and consumers themselves. If you need a quick primer on sugar basics, we’ve got you covered.

Here are a few tips that will help you rein in your added sugar intake.

First, get familiar with the many words that mean sugar.

Added sugar information (on the new Nutrition Facts labels) is not in use on every product yet, so that means you will need to read some ingredient labels. Knowing which words indicate sugar is important. There are many names for different types of sugar. Some sound technical (such as dextrose or maltose), some are more recognizable (such as molasses or honey) and some just seem odd (like brown rice syrup or invert sugar). In any case, you can be sure that if a sweetener is added to a food product, it will be listed in the ingredient list on the food label. Obviously, if the word “sugar” is included in any way—like brown sugar, turbinado sugar, and confectioner’s sugar—that’s a sugar. No mystery there.

A couple more easy labeling “rules” you should know:

  • If an ingredient ends with “ose,” it’s a sugar.
  • If you see the word “syrup,” it’s a sugar.
  • Juice “concentrates” or “evaporated” juice are sugars.

Certain categories of foods are more prone to having added sugars in their formulations—some for taste reasons, some for food science-y/food preservation reasons. If you want to cut down on added sugars in the diet, these categories are some of the biggest offenders…

Watch out for sugary condiments.

Many common condiments and sauces have sugar added to them, so it pays to read the labels for added sugar. You may find “no added sugar” versions of some condiments, although another option would be to make your own versions of things like BBQ sauce and marinades.

In general, these are common condiment culprits:

  • Hoisin sauce
  • Teriyaki sauce
  • Duck sauce
  • Salad dressings
  • BBQ sauce
  • Bottled marinades
  • Honey mustard
  • Peanut sauce/satay

Peek at labels on prepared tomato products.

Home cooks sometimes use the technique of adding a small amount of sugar to tomato-based dishes like spaghetti sauce and chili to help round out their flavor. Food manufacturers do the same thing—though perhaps to a greater degree than one might at home. Some products are now available with no added sugar, but in general, you will need to compare labels.

Especially check labels on:

  • Pasta sauces
  • Canned chili
  • Canned/boxed tomato (and other) soups
  • Ketchup

Home cooking tip: Adding tomato paste or a puree of roasted veggies (like carrots, onions, or peppers) can add that rounding sweetness to tomato dishes with more nutrition than added sugar.

Choose fruit products that are added sugar-free.

As sweet as fruit is, you might be surprised at how many fruit products have sugar and syrups added to them. Some fruits, such as cranberries, are sweetened to make them more edible/less tart. But for pretty much everything else, the fruit is sweet enough as it is. You can usually find fruit products with no added sugars.

Be on the watch for sweetened fruit products like:

  • Dried fruit
  • Fruit cups and canned fruit
  • Fruit juice drinks

Be aware that beverages can be swimming in sugar.

Most of us already realize that beverages are a prime place for added sugar to enter the diet. Regular water is always a great choice and should be your primary beverage, but if you’re looking for more flavor, opt for unsweetened beverages. Many beverages now tout their unsweetened nature right on the front label, but if not, flip the product over and check the ingredient list.

Be especially aware that the following beverages tend to have added sugars (and sometimes lots of it):

  • Soda/soft drinks
  • Sports drinks
  • Energy drinks

Double-check dairy and non-dairy products.

Yogurts and non-dairy yogurts-type products, as well as milk-based beverages and non-dairy “milks” are an exploding category. It just seems that more and more shelf space is being devoted to an ever-increasing array of these products. That’s wonderful, but can be confusing for consumers. In order to remove some the tartness of yogurt products and add flavor interest, fruit is added. And while the natural sugars in the diary products themselves (lactose) and well as in the fruit is fine, less fine is the additional sugar added to lots of yogurt-type products. Often, skyr products have less added sugar. As for the beverages, quite a few are flavored (vanilla, chocolate, banana, strawberry, etc) and those are obviously sources of added sugar. Even the plain versions of these dairy and non-dairy “milks” can contain added sugar. The best bet with these beverages is to choose those labeled “unsweetened.” Again, read those labels! (And while you’re at it, check the protein content if that’s a concern for you—they are not all equal in that regard!)

Compare sugar contents of:

  • Yogurt (all styles including Greek)
  • Skyr
  • Non-dairy yogurt-type products
  • Non-dairy “milks”—both flavored and plain versions (including nut-, soy-, coconut-, and pea-based beverages, etc)