Sugar, specifically added sugar, is sneaky. So sneaky, in fact, that hidden sugar in foods often comes from items you’d least expect.
How much sugar is too much?
The American Heart Association recommends different amounts of added sugar for optimal health depending on your gender and activity level. The average, active woman can consume five teaspoons of added sugar per day (20 grams or 80 calories), while an active man can consume up to nine teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) of added sugar per day. Those who are more sedentary should reduce that number to three teaspoons (12 grams) for women, and nine teaspoons (37 grams) for men. For context, one can of soda can have up to 44 grams of sugar and sometimes more.
The more sugar we consume, the more sugar we want to consume. That’s because sugar activates the part of our brain that triggers cravings and reward. A study in France found that sweet foods and foods high in sugar can induce cravings comparable to and even stronger than addictive drugs.
Health experts increasingly agree that we could all benefit from cutting added sugars from our diet—eating too much can raise insulin, increase inflammation, and accelerate cellular aging (a.k.a. make our bodies age faster!). “Consuming less sugar throughout the day will help balance your blood sugar and stabilize your appetite and mood,” says Emily Navarro, RDN, senior manager of health and wellness for Freshly.
What is a hidden sugar?
Hidden sugar is any sugar added to packaged or processed food that is not labeled outright as sugar. This is also known as added sugar. There are currently tracked, at least 61 names for sugar including some recognizable ones like sucrose or cane sugar, and some less known names like dextrin or maltose - or even Florida Crystals - that are easily missed when evaluating labels.
We all expect sugar to be in desserts, sweet breakfast cereals and some sauces (like ketchup and barbecue sauce). But often, sugars are hidden in savory foods like white bread, salad dressings, and vegetable dishes like veggie burgers.
Hidden sugar is in contrast to the naturally-occuring sugar in some foods. For example, dairy contains sugar (called lactose) which is not added. Fruits are also a source of natural sugar and when they are eaten whole, the sugar is easily digested—and even necessary for your body to function—and not a cause for concern.
Honey, molasses and agave syrup are all considered to be added sugars as well. Even though the sugars in all three of these ingredients are naturally occurring, these natural sweeteners should still be limited to fall within the daily sugar intake guidelines of the American Heart Association.
How do you identify hidden sugars?
Don’t rely on the name of the item, category of food, or the overall style of the packaging to guide you when it comes to identifying hidden sugars. The only way to tell how much added sugar is contained in the food you’re consuming is to look at the nutrition facts in addition to the ingredients lists of packaged foods. For example, one popular brand of tea says it’s not too sweet, but actually contains 17 grams of added sugar per serving according to the nutrition facts.
The FDA updated the rules for labeling sugar to force manufacturers to include the amount of added sugar to the nutrition facts. This can help identify some of the sugars that are not as easily recognizable in the ingredient list. These new rules are currently in effect, but manufacturers of foods with longer shelf lives have until July of 2020 to make the changes.
Even with this information, it’s easy to continue to eat added sugars well beyond the recommended nine or five teaspoons allotted per day for good health. Be sure to also check the serving size, as some packaged food has more than one serving in each container, which means you’ll have to multiply the grams of sugar added by the amount of food or drink you’re consuming.
Summer’s Biggest Sources of Hidden Sugar in Foods
With higher temperatures and lots of reasons for gathering and celebrating, summer favorites like cool drinks and poolside bbq recipes are culprits for sneaky sugars. The worst offenders are commonly perceived to be “healthy” choices—especially some of our favorite summer treats (say it ain’t so!). Here are some of the most beloved summer staples that secretly contain sugar—and Navarro’s suggestions for how to make them healthier:
The hidden sugar: Pre-made or restaurant smoothies make the top of the list of sources of hidden sugar in food. At a restaurant or cafe, you may not even know since you rarely see them being made. Recipes also often add sugar to sweeten-up an already sweet fruit smoothie. Instead, rely on the natural sugars from whole, unsweetened fruit. Some smoothies can go overboard on fruit too, so stick to a reasonable portion – no more than you would eat for a snack or as part of a meal.
The Freshly fix: For a milkshake-y texture, blend frozen fruits and veggies (bananas and cauliflower work well for creaminess) with an unsweetened milk or coconut water. Sneak in a handful of fresh or frozen spinach or kale, plus a healthy source of fat like seeds, nuts, or avocado, and fresh herbs or spices like fresh mint, ginger, or turmeric for added nutrition.
The hidden sugar: Tea can be a refreshing and healthy way to stay hydrated, but beware of bottled and canned varieties, which can have more than 20g of added sugar in 1 serving. That’s close to the American Heart Association’s recommended limit (25g of added sugar per day for women, 36 grams per day for men) for the entire day.
The Freshly fix: Luckily, you can easily side-step hidden sugar in foods by reading the ingredient list on the nutrition panel. Choose unsweetened varieties, or better yet, brew tea at home and store in the refrigerator. Try a squeezed lemon, a slice of pineapple, or add a few frozen raspberries to freshly brewed iced tea for a hint of flavor and sweetness.
Sauces and condiments
The hidden sugar: Since sauces and condiments are eaten in smaller amounts, they typically fall under the radar, which is why they can be the sneakiest when it comes to hidden sugar in foods. Popular bottled barbecue sauce has 16g of sugar in just 2 tablespoons. Even ketchup can have 4g of sugar in just 1 tablespoon.
The Freshly fix: Look for sauces that use the least amount of sugar. Instead of ketchup, try mustard. Even better, make your own sauces so you have control over what and how much goes in. For sauces that need just a touch of sweetness, like barbecue or teriyaki, we like to use honey or maple syrup, since they’re sweeter than table sugar and you can get away with using less. Our marinara sauce is sweetened with honey rather than regular sugar and contains 39% less sugar than the industry leading brands.
The hidden sugar: Nothing says summer like outdoor happy hour, but those pina coladas are a sugar bomb—just one 5 oz drink can set you back by at least 31g of sugar (that’s almost 8 teaspoons)! Watch out for other sugary cocktails that have added simple syrup and soda like Long Island Iced teas and margaritas, even tonic water—which is easily mistaken for being sugar-free—packs 32g per 12 fl ounce bottle.
The Freshly fix: Of course, drinking in moderation is a natural (and recommended!) strategy. For a less sugary version of your favorite cocktail, ask the bartender to skimp on the simple syrup, or request mixers like club soda and real lime or lemon juice instead of the flavored, bottled stuff.
The hidden sugar: When ordering your morning iced coffee, don’t let the term “lightly sweetened” fool you. A “lightly sweetened” large, black iced coffee has a shocking 30g of sugar, and a large iced vanilla latte has 41g! That blended creamy caramel coffee drink? A whopping 66g of sugar in just a medium—that’s 16.5 teaspoons, well above the recommended daily limit.
The Freshly fix: Specify that you would like an unsweetened coffee when you order to avoid all hidden sugar. If you can’t quite stomach it, decrease the sugar slowly by requesting fewer pumps of syrup and try a sprinkle of cinnamon or vanilla instead. For lattes, skip the flavors and you’ll cut the sugar by more than half! The sugar in a regular caffe latte comes from lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in milk.
The hidden sugar: Sports drinks can be a great tool for athletes or people working strenuously, especially in hot weather for longer than an hour. They replenish important electrolytes for hydration and provide a fast-acting source of sugar for energy—a 20 fl. oz. bottle provides a whopping 34g of added sugar. The problem is, most of us don’t work hard enough to warrant that much, and they can contribute to weight gain.
The Freshly fix: Unless you’re working up a real sweat, stick to water. Foods like watermelon and cucumber can be hydrating too—plus they provide beneficial vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Or, try an unsweetened coconut water, which has some natural sugar and electrolytes. Just be sure to check the label to avoid brands with excess sugars and added flavors.
The hidden sugar: Just like condiments and sauces, salad dressings can be sources of hidden sugars in foods (namely, salads) and possibly sabotage our healthiest intentions. Check the label, especially for sweet salad dressings like French, fruit-flavored vinaigrettes, and cole slaw dressing which has 6-8 grams of sugar per 2 tablespoons. Plus, the small serving size makes it easy to overdo!
The Freshly fix: For an easy dressing without the sugar, whisk together vinegar or lemon juice with dijon mustard and extra virgin olive oil. Experiment with herbs like parsley and basil for an Italian flare, or oregano for a Greek-style dressing. Add minced garlic or shallots for extra flavor.
The hidden sugar: Frozen yogurt seems to carry a “health halo” because it can be lower in fat and calories than ice cream. But opting for fro-yo can even have more sugar than other frozen treats. A half cup of fro-yo can have 17g of sugar—and keep in mind that most fro-yo cups and cones hold much more than just the one serving.
The Freshly fix: When you need a sweet treat, by all means, enjoy it. For all those other times, satisfy your craving and side-step added sugar with banana “nice” cream: Add frozen banana slices to a food processor with 100% pure cacao and a small amount of your favorite unsweetened milk, blend until smooth.
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