Nutritionists Reveal Everyday Foods With Hidden Sugars

Nutritionists Reveal Everyday Foods With Hidden Sugars

Most of us are looking to improve our diet where we can, which can often mean turning to supposed healthy foods or switching to lower calorie, reduced fat alternatives instead of regular products.

While many diet products will have fewer calories than their counterparts, some are packed full of refined sugars, which can ultimately lead to increased hunger and cravings.

Sugar causes insulin to be released in the body, so the hormone can regulate blood glucose levels. However, if blood sugar rises too rapidly, the body can release too much and cause blood sugar to crash again, meaning you end up feeling lethargic and hungry.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults should keep their intake of added sugars to less than 10 percent of their total daily calories, meaning in a 2,000-calorie diet, no more than 200 calories should come from free sugars.

Sugary food. In this combination image, Orange Juice, BBQ sauce, Bowl of breakfast cereal and peanut butter.
iStock / Getty Images

Fitness and nutrition expert Penny Weston, who founded Staffordshire’s Made Wellness Centre, told Newsweek: “Excess sugar can have a real impact on our health both in the short-term and the long-term.

“In the short term, sugar leads to blood sugar fluctuations, which can cause increased hunger and cravings. Long term, sugar can increase inflammation in the body and damage cells and organs, as well as, of course, leading to weight gain.”

According to bariatric and sports nutritionist Mark Gilbert, who is the lead nutritionist for Cambridge Weight Plan, the most common sources of unexpected sugar in the Western diet include cereals, cereal bars, low-fat yogurt, BBQ sauce, and juice.

However, he added the most ‘hidden’ sources aren’t technically sugars at all, but highly-processed carbohydrates composed of starch which have very similar effects on the body to eating actual sugar.

Here, Weston and Gilbert reveal the foods which may appear “healthy” on the label, but can actually be full of free sugars—and the red flags to look out for while shopping.

Sugar.
Sugar. Fitness and nutrition expert Penny Weston told Newsweek ten foods with hidden sugars
iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Low Fat Yogurt

While full-fat yogurt may contain more calories, it can be a far healthier alternative to low-fat variations because it has less sugar, more protein, and is better for gut health.

“Most of us usually think of yogurt as a healthy alternative to ice cream but low fat yogurts actually contain a lot of added sugar to enhance the flavor,” said Penny. “A single portion of yogurt, around 245g, can contain more than 45g of sugar, which is a huge amount.

“Full-fat yogurt has health benefits such as magnesium, vitamin K, amino acids, and calcium as well as probiotics, which are good for gut health. But low-fat yogurt doesn’t have the same benefits. I would advise choosing a yogurt without fruit and adding in your own fruit as this can decrease the sugar content too.”

Gilbert agreed: “Low-fat yogurt can have half or more of its calories from sugar. Some of that sugar will naturally occur from the milk the yogurt is made from. So check the ingredients list to see if sugar has been added as an ingredient.

“A key thing to understand with yogurt and other dairy products is that as long as you keep an eye on your calories, there is no need to choose the low-fat version, as studies suggest that dairy fat is associated with lower body weight, better health, and other benefits.

“As such, my recommendation is to buy whichever yogurt you like best, eat an amount that fits your calorie requirements and buy plain yogurt and add your favorite fruits or berries.”

BBQ sauces

Gilbert said BBQ sauces get the majority of their calories from sugar and advised using the product sparingly to avoid empty calories adding up.

“Most BBQ sauces get most of their calories from sugar. If you are just putting a thin coating on meat before cooking, then that’s probably a pretty minor addition to your daily intake but if you are going to drown them in sauce before cooking and then add more sauce later, those calories can add up,” he said.

“As with all foods you’re not sure about, check the labels. In the case of BBQ sauce, some have substantially less sugar than others, so take the time to choose the best one and you’ll know to use that same one going forward.”

Instant Flavored Oatmeal

Instant oatmeal will often be sold as a healthy breakfast, and while oats themselves are a great way to start the day, nutrition expert Weston warned to be wary of hidden sugars in fruit-flavored breakfasts.

“While porridge is healthy and gives us slow-release energy, instant porridge packets, especially fruit-flavored ones, even though that sounds healthy, can have 10 to 15 grams of sugar per packet,” says Penny.

“It is much better to make your own porridge, using water or semi-skimmed milk, and add in your flavorings, such as cinnamon or some blueberries on top. Even healthy-sounding flavors have a lot of extra sugar.”

Cereals

While cereals have a wide range of sugar content, Gilbert said some brands contain a third of their calories from sugar and the volume of sugar per serving is often misunderstood because serving sizes are usually considerably smaller than most consumers’ typical portions.

He explained: “Cereals are another food that can have a very wide range of sugar. Some have zero and are made of pure wheat or oats, and some get over a third of their calories from sugar. Another thing to be aware of is that just about everyone overestimates the serving size of cereal.

“Manufacturers may claim these foods to be low in calories, sugar, and other unwanted nutrients but if you have the typical serving size, it will contain far more than intended. Besides the obvious proviso to check the sugar content on the label, if you are going for muesli or granola, look for the ‘low sugar’ versions because most others will have significant added sugar.”

Dried Fruit

Fruit tends to include lots of natural sugar, but Weston said when water is removed from the fruit, the sugars are concentrated into a much smaller package, making dried fruit higher in sugar and calories.

“While we all think dried fruit is healthy, it can have huge amounts of sugar and far more than fresh fruits,” said Penny.

“A small box of raisins could have more than 25g of sugar. Without water, the sugars become more concentrated in the dried variety. Eating grapes will have far less sugar and be just as tasty.”

Smoothies

Smoothies can be a healthy breakfast, however, Weston warned to be wary of store-bought varieties which are often made with fruit juice concentrates and purees rather than fresh fruit.

“I love smoothies,” said Penny. “But if you are buying them from a bottle, rather than making them yourselves, they will be full of sugar.

“Many people assume all the sugar comes from the fruit but a lot of the manufacturers will use fruit juice concentrates and purees to add to the flavor and they can cause weight gain. If you make your own smoothie at home, you can blend in fiber, such as chia seeds or flaxseeds as well as healthy fats like avocado.

“A pre-made smoothie can contain an incredible 14 teaspoons and the danger with shop-bought smoothies is they provide a high amount of carbohydrates, which are quickly digested and can spike blood sugar. It means you can then become hungry quickly after eating them.”

Peanut Butter

“While many people think of nut butters as being healthy, peanut butter can contain a lot of sugar, especially ones flavored with chocolate or honey,” said Penny.

“A serving of peanut butter usually contains about 2 grams of added sugar so it’s definitely not as bad as some foods. But you do need to be careful which brand you buy as some have a lot more sugar than others.

“Peanut butter when you buy the right brand does have lots of protein, vitamins, and minerals and is a great snack to have with sliced apples.”

Breakfast Bars

According to Weston, breakfast bars can often lack fiber and protein while being significantly high in free sugars and warned always to be wary of sugar levels from honey or dried fruit.

“Obviously there are lots of breakfast bars out there but some can be really high in sugar,” said Penny. “Many oat-based bars have a lot of sugar and lack nutrients such as fiber and protein. There are definitely some brands that are much lower in sugar but you need to make sure you read the labels properly.

“Often the sugar is in the form of honey and they will contain dried fruits, which are again high in sugar. However, there is normally less sugar in them than in a chocolate bar.”

Juice

According to Gilbert, while fruit juices can be a beneficial source of vitamins and minerals in moderation, processed juices often have high volumes of sugar and calories.

“Juice in moderation can be a good source of vitamin C, healthy phytochemicals (plant chemicals) and other nutrients. However, versus having a piece of fruit, juice is a very concentrated source of sugar and calories,” he said.

“For instance, a glass of orange juice the size of a typical coffee cup will have over five teaspoons of sugar versus three teaspoons in a medium-large orange, and the orange will have much more fiber and be more filling.”

Kombucha

Despite being one of the most popular wellness drinks of the moment, Weston said to be careful of added sugars and make sure to choose a variety with less than 10 grams per serving.

“Kombucha is one of the drinks on-trend right now and talked about as super healthy thanks to all the probiotics,” said Penny. “But many brands add way too much. You want to look for one with less than 10 grams of sugar per serving. You can also make your own kombucha, which is very satisfying.

“The kombucha-making process does require sugar as the yeast feed on it to create the guy-healthy probiotics but you’ll avoid the added flavorings, which shop-bought alternatives will often have.”

Flavored Water

If you’re trying to increase your water intake, the nutrition expert warned against sugary flavored waters, advising to add natural flavorings like cucumber or lemon to water instead.

“While this sounds like a great idea to make water a bit more interesting, flavored water often has a lot of extra sugar. They can have around 27grams of added sugar,” said Penny. “A good alternative is to flavor your own water by adding a slice of cucumber to water.”

Pasta Sauce

“While you may think that jars of pasta sauce will be a healthy alternative to a ready-meal, with a mixture of tomatoes and herbs, they can be a really high source of sugar, ” said Penny.

“A third of an average-sized jar of pasta sauce can contain more than 13g of sugar, including added sugar – the equivalent of 3 teaspoons of sugar.

“It is easy to make your own sauce, using a tin of chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs and you can add other vegetables too like peppers, mushrooms or courgettes.”

Non-Dairy Milk

According to Weston, just because a milk is vegan, it’s not necessarily healthier, with many dairy alternatives packed full of free sugars.

“We know that many people think of milk alternatives as being healthier but milk such as soy, almond, rice, or cashew milks can contain 10 grams of sugar,” said Penny.

“Try to look for an unsweetened version. You need to make sure you check the labels as some non-dairy milks are healthier than others. Many contain added sugar, so you want to avoid those.”

What to Look For While Shopping?

“When checking ingredients, it’s important to realize that just because sugar isn’t listed, it doesn’t mean there isn’t added sugar,” said Penny.

“There are a whole host of ingredients which indicate added sugar, from agave nectar, syrup, evaporated cane juice, fructose to honey, molasses, malt syrup and sucrose.

“When shopping, it is definitely better to pick up the raw ingredients to reduce your overall sugar intake and make the foods at home. It will also help reduce salt intake.

“I also think sometimes people don’t realize how much sugar they should be eating a day. It really is a small amount. Adults should have no more than 30g of free sugars a day;

“So something is low in sugar if it has 5g or less of total sugar per 100g but high in sugar if it is 22.5g or more of total sugar per 100g.

“When shopping it can definitely be helpful to use the color-coded system so look for foods which are mainly green and amber and avoid the reds.”

Gilbert warned to not only be wary of sugars, but highly-processed carbohydrates which contain long chains of sugar which are broken down and absorbed quickly and have similar effects as consuming refined sugars.

He explained: “In reasonable amounts, these starches may be fine for people who are healthy, exercise regularly, and are not overweight but for those who don’t follow a healthy lifestyle, sugar and rapidly-absorbed starches cause large blood sugar fluctuations that increase the risk of ill health and obesity.

“Remember, 50 per cent or more of Western diets are composed of carbohydrates, so that’s over 1000 calories daily, just from carbs and most of those carbs are processed and full of starch and/or sugar. So these foods are very likely a big contributor to the obesity and diabetes epidemics we find ourselves in today.

“So keep an eye out for the foods we mentioned above and check the label, because you can often find exceptions, which are low in sugar.

“When it comes to yogurt, choose one that doesn’t have added sugar and don’t worry about the fat content because the proportion of fat in the diet does not cause ill health or obesity and dairy fat is actually associated with the beneficial effects! Juice is probably a bad idea, you never want to be drinking calories when you can get them from whole foods.

“Finally, try to get most of your carbs from unprocessed fruits and vegetables. These tips will help you avoid hidden sugar and make it difficult to overeat.”