You’ve long since tossed the cookies, cake, processed snacks — even that bag of organic, vegan whole-cane sugar — but your scale seems stuck. Maybe even broken. It is time to consider hidden sugar.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting total daily sugar to a maximum of 36 grams for men and 25 grams for women. And government associations move slowly in response to new research. You’re best off far below those limits.
Hidden in unsuspecting everyday foods, small amounts of sugar throughout the day quickly adds up, hampering weight loss efforts and progress towards your perfect body.
The Big 3 Inescapable Sources of Sugar
Sugar makes foods tastier and more palatable. Seasoned chefs know that adding sugar, salt, acid, and fat can take a meal from average to worthy of a five-star Yelp review. It’s not just chefs, manufacturers took a page from their handbook and hide sugar in the most inconspicuous of foods under a sea of different ingredient terms. Here we will shine a light on the most common hidden sources, and how you can hack them.
1. Restaurant Food
Something about restaurant meals makes them impossible to replicate at home. Looking beyond the ambiance and into the preparation of your guilty pleasure dishes, the ingredients may disturb you.
Often loaded with toxic industrially-processed vegetable oils, spoonfuls of sugar, and a full day’s worth of salt, eating these “cheat” meals regularly takes its toll. Other seemingly better choices deserve a second thought.
Chicken dishes, burgers, pitaya bowls, onion rings, and even salads made a list of restaurant foods to avoid.
Some popular options fare worse — a lot worse. The last entry in a report by Eat This, Not That found a popular smoothie containing 227 grams of sugar! To emphasize: this one meal contains nearly ten times the recommended maximum sugar intake.
- Choose a light dish and you’ll avoid a small bucket of added sugar.
I have a confession to make: I like a lot of sauce with my food. Maybe more so than the food itself. I am a sauce guy. I’ve learned to carefully choose my sauces and you may want to consider doing the same.
Unless the nutrition facts are online, you probably won’t know the contents of a restaurant’s secret sauce. That is too much of a pain anyway. The prudent move is to assume all restaurant sauces guilty until proven innocent. Sauce is all but codeword for liquid sugar. Unless I am in a restaurant known for quality, I usually get them on the side. That way I can pace my dipping and am wary of my sugar intake.
Home cooks rejoice, your options have flourished in recent years. Brands like Primal Kitchen and many others now stock prominent grocery stores with low-sugar, healthy-fat, and guilt-free sauces. They run a bit more than your corn-syrup alternatives but you will leave the meal feeling good and without the post-meal energy crash.
- Ask for sauces on the side.
- Between a salty, sour, sweet, or acidic sauce, avoid the sweet option.
- Buy quality low-sugar sauces at the grocery store and savor the flavor.
3. Salad Dressings
Like sauces, salad dressing makes an assorted plate of vegetables far more edible.
When you think of healthy eating, what comes to mind?
For me: salad. Years of gagging down my greens and I finally began enjoying them. I did it wrong — some salads have more in common with a candy bar than you would think.
In that same report Eat This, Not That found one popular grilled chicken salad containing 70 grams of sugar! That’s nine donuts worth of sugar in a salad. Most of that comes from the dressing.
Home cooks comparing dressings should take note of the label’s sugar per serving. Some sneaky manufacturers use tiny serving sizes to make the sugar content appear lower. What do I mean by this?
To accurately compare two dressings you must hold serving size constant. This will make more sense through an example:
- Dressing 1: 0.5 TSP serving size and 5 grams of sugar.
- Dressing 2: 1.0 TSP serving size and 8 grams of sugar.
Notice that the first dressing looks like it has less sugar, but the serving size is half the second. Assuming you will use the same amount of dressing regardless of the label, to accurately compare the two you would double the first dressing’s serving size. This puts Dressing 1 at 10 grams of sugar per 1.0 TSP.
- Get your salad dressing on the side and only lightly drizzle it on.
- Opt for olive oil-based dressings instead.
- For a simple option that any kitchen can prepare: ask for olive oil, salt, and vinegar.
- Choose reputable brands that boast low-sugar when shopping at the grocery store.
Common “Healthy” Grocery Staples
Albeit more obvious since you can usually see a label, keep your eye on other household staples as well. Anything that you buy often deserves a quick scan of the nutrition facts. Swapping out a bad product today can lead to decades of a better choice.
On rare occasion I completely remove a component of my diet and never look back. Juices fall into this category for good reason.
Are there some magical properties of juice that render it better than soda?
The two drinks contain similar (high) amounts of sugar. Both lack fiber. Drinking your sugar does not reduce hunger or make you feel full. Excess consumption quickly leads to weight gain.
Juice does have a better nutrition profile. Even then, nutrients in juice degrade with time so you still have better options.
- Choose fresh or frozen fruit over juice when possible.
- For optimal nutriention drink fresh juice over packaged and processed.
- If you do choose to drink juice, limit yourself to a meager 5oz (as recommended by research).
Bars have saved me from countless meal-less situations. Choosing the right bar is a task in itself.
Even tried making your own bars without sweetener? Each of my multiple attempts resulted in an expensive cardboard-like taste. How do they do it? I’ve seen more than 30 ingredients in a single 30 gram bar. Some of those extend shelf life. Others make them more attractive.
Bars get away adding lots of sugar because of their size. A typical bar ranges from 20–50 grams depending on the physical size of the bar. For context, the weight of an entire bar is less than the sugar in an average bottle of soda.
When inspecting labels, the top of the nutrition facts displays serving size in grams. Compare the amount of sugar to that number. Here is a hypothetical (but common) comparison between the serving size and sugar of two bars:
- 10 grams of sugar in a 30 gram bar —> 1/3 of the bar is sugar.
- 17 grams of sugar in a 34 gram bar —> 1/5 of the bar is sugar.
Just because you find them in health food stores or supermarkets like Whole Foods or Sprouts Market doesn’t give them a pass through your quick sugar calculations. I found a certain 51 gram organic, plant-based, sprouted, flaxseed bar with 20 grams of sugar. Nearly 40% of what I almost ate was nothing but pure sugar?
Truly healthy bars can feel like finding a needle in a haystack, but they exist.
- See through the marketing claims and attractive labels and give them the same inspection.
- Settle for bars with the high weight-to-sugar ratio (ie a 50 plus gram bar with 5 of sugar).
I would choose ice cream over yogurt for taste every time. Yes, I compared the two. Flavored yogurt is a dessert. Unless you choose the plain, unflavored variety, the two have more in common than you think. Especially low-fat dairy.
Calling yogurt a dessert sounds ridiculous, but one single cup of low-fat yogurt can have up to 47 grams of sugar. Many ice creams have far less.
Remember the secret weapons used heavily by great chefs?
Salt, acid, fats, and sugar make any food delicious. When they reduce fat, to maintain flavor they look to the remaining flavor enhancers. The first stop is usually sugar.
To make matters worse, low-fat yogurt doesn’t have the benefits of full-fat yogurt.
Plain yogurt can taste more like sour cream than a snack. It doesn’t have to though.
- Go with full-fat yogurt for lower sugar content.
- Choose unflavored Greek yogurt for the higher protein and (usually) lower sugar.
- Sweeten to taste with stevia, monk fruit, real fruit, or other options that keep your blood sugar more steady.
4. Wine (the Sweet Varieties)
You probably have not compared your glass of wine to a soda. Thanks to acidity and tannins, the sweetest wines do not taste nearly as sweet as a soda.
The Wine Folly explains how you can test this for yourself:
- First taste plain sugar.
- Next, taste plain sugar with lemon juice.
Compared to the first option, the acidity in lemon juice should cut some of the sweet taste. This explains why we don’t think of wine as particularly sweet.
Don’t worry, I am not suggesting you give up wine.
You should know, however, that the sugar content in wine varies from <1 gram to above 30 grams per glass. Wineries do not need to list sugar content on bottles and usually do not. The good wineries post “tech sheets” online that list sugar content. I would only bother consulting this list if you frequent a particular bottle.
- Liberally (to an extent) enjoy dry wines.
- Limit intake of sweet wines.
- Find the tech sheet online for your favorite bottles.
To feel our best, maintain a healthy weight, and remain metabolically healthy, watching our intake of sugary desserts is no longer enough.
These days sugar has made its way into the most innocent of foods whether at home or eating out. You’ve learned about the big three hidden sources of sugar:
- Restaurant food
And you now know expert strategies to make the most of each of those situations without ruining the experience.
You can grocery shop in peace, knowing to keep a close eye on:
Hopefully this opens your eyes to the myriad ways in which sugar sneaks into your life.
If you take away nothing else, when shopping for your staple groceries remember to give labels a glance. Compare products by the ratio of serving size to sugar, and you can easily make optimal choices.
What will you do with this, knowing that you are ahead of 90 percent of the population?