We have a sugar addiction in America. Even if you don’t think you have a sweet tooth, you might be surprised at how much added sugar you consume on a daily basis. You might know that it can be addictive—eating sugar releases opioids and dopamine in the brain. Once your body gets used to frequent sugar intake, you may experience cravings and withdrawals.
On top of its addictive properties, sugar is linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Whether you’re trying to stave off weight gain or simply pay better attention to your health, watching your sugar intake is important.
Unfortunately, hidden sugars are everywhere. Unless you know how to find hidden sugars in your food, you could be unknowingly sabotaging your diet. Here’s how to find and avoid hidden sugar.
What are hidden sugars?
According to WebMD, the “American Heart Association recommends that women have no more than 100 calories of sugar per day (about 6 teaspoons' worth) and men have no more than 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons).” That seems like a lot, until you learn how many foods include added sugar.
Hidden sugars come in foods you might not expect, like pasta sauce. Just like salt enhances the flavor of food, sugar can bring out depth too. However, excessive salt and sugar are both bad for you. That’s why you need to check the labels on everything you eat. Few people have the time and budget to make everything from fresh, whole foods—there’s no shame in picked up jarred pasta sauce or flavored yogurt. When you do, make sure that you watch for hidden sugar.
How companies hide sugar in their ingredient lists
Sometimes labels are straightforward: they might add sugar in the ingredient list. Other times, they’ll make it harder to identify. Here are some of the ways companies hide sugar:
- Different names: Sugar can go by a lot of names, especially if it’s a natural type of sweetener. Here’s an exhaustive list of how companies might hide the ingredient. Look for terms like dextrose, crystalline fructose, maltodextrin and rice syrup—these are all sweeteners, but they may not register as “sugar” when you read the label.
- Health claims: Alternative sweeteners are still sugar. Dates, honey, agave nectar, beet sugar and other natural, unrefined sugars still count toward your daily limit. Watch out for “healthy” sweeteners. Companies may also add refined sweeteners to the natural sugars.
- Adding sugar to unexpected foods: Pasta sauce, salad dressing, granola bars and yogurt: these are just a few of the foods you may not expect would include sugar. Even savory and “health” foods can include it.
- Different types of sugar: Sometimes companies use multiple types of sugar in one product, to make it look like there’s not as much included. Read the full ingredient list to make sure you’re not consuming hidden sugars, in addition to what’s clearly listed on the label.
- Lowering portion size: Finally, companies may make their serving sizes lower, so that it appears that there’s less sugar in the product. Pay attention to how big a portion size is (who only eats six crackers?) before you purchase a product.
What to do when you can’t check the label
It’s not always possible to check the label, especially when you’re eating at restaurants. When concerned about your sugar intake, try to get as close to whole foods as possible. Lean proteins, vegetables, whole grains and switching out salad dressing for oil and vinegar can help.
If you like to go out for drinks, watch out for cocktails. Drinks like margaritas can include 50 to 60 grams of sugar in one 12-ounce drink—and who wants just one margarita? Similarly, smoothies and fresh juices can pack a powerful, sugary punch.
Ultimately, you might decide to save eating and drinking out for “cheat days,” since it’s hard to be sure exactly how much sugar is included. It’s all about balance: you don’t have to cut out sugary drinks and snacks entirely, but being cognizant of your overall intake will help improve your health.
The bottom line
Sugar is hard to avoid—but it’s possible, especially if you’re in the habit of cooking for yourself. Learning how to spot hidden sugars is a superpower that will serve you well. Whether you’re on a diet or just want to stay fit and healthy, make a point to know what you’re eating.