Added Sugars: Do You Know Where They are Hiding?

Added Sugars: Do You Know Where They’re Hiding?

By Safa Gamam, Intern with The Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation

“A healthy eating pattern is not a rigid prescription, but rather, an adaptable framework.”Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2016

Did you know that raw sugar, honey, corn syrup, maltose are all some of the many terms that indicate a food has “added” sugars? If you’re like many people, you’re familiar with the sugar found in foods like candy and desserts, but may not pay as much attention to the added sugars in food.

Nutrition experts are hoping that will soon change. Released in January 2016, the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans contain a very important recommendation to limit the calories you get from added sugars by shifting to healthier food and beverage choices.

Consuming a lot of calories from added sugars is one of the most pressing issues for today’s population. That’s because it directly contributes to the growing prevalence of preventable diseases, such as heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

What are added sugars?

Added sugars are inserted into foods and beverages to sweeten them and improve their palatability, increase preservation or shelf life, and add texture and color. These sugars are different from those that are found naturally in foods like fruit or milk, and while they add calories to our diets, they don’t contribute any essential nutrients.

That’s why added sugars are known as “empty calories.” More often than not, we unknowingly consume copious amounts of them throughout the day. Frequently consuming foods with excess amounts of added sugars can also lead you to eat fewer foods that actually do contain the essential nutrients needed to help you stay healthy.

How much added sugar should you have?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that you limit your added sugar consumption to less than 10 percent of your daily calories. The less you consume, the better off you will be, since there is no nutritional benefit that comes from eating added sugars. Cutting back as much as possible will help you manage your weight and prevent diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, which totals up to an extra 350 calories. Although sometimes we consciously choose to add sugar to our food, more often the case is that the processed and prepared foods we consume already contained added sugars that we’re not aware of. 

The chart on the right-hand side of this page shows just how easy it is to unknowingly consume added sugars and to exceed the 10 percent or less recommendation in only one meal.

How do you spot added sugars?

Although nutrition labels are legally required to list the grams of sugar in a product, they do not differentiate between added sugars and sugars that occur naturally in a food. Because of this discreet labeling practice, we must all be savvy consumers. One way to make sure you do this is by looking for added sugars in the ingredient list.  

Added sugars are not always readily apparent on ingredient lists, since they come in a variety of forms. Often they are concealed as seemingly healthy ingredients, when in fact they are not.

For example, raw sugar and honey are still added sugars — and have the same effect on your body that regular sugar has. The list on the right-hand side of this page includes many of the terms that indicate added sugar on an ingredient list. Print the list out and use it to check the ingredient lists for the foods in your refrigerator and pantry.

Tips for avoiding added sugars:

  • Scan ingredient lists for added sugars, which can be found under a variety of names.
  • Avoid eating foods that list added sugars as the first or second ingredient.
  • Be aware that all added sugars — whether they are from honey, raw sugar or high-fructose corn syrup — will be metabolized by your body in the same way, and will add extra empty calories to your diet.
  • Enjoy sweet treats in moderation, but be aware of the added sugars in other foods you are eating.
  • Avoid pre-packaged and pre-prepared foods, since they are generally high in added sugars.
  • Avoid drinking sugar-sweetened beverages. Since these liquid sugars are less filling than solid sugars, they can cause you to feel hungrier. You can end up eating more, on top of the high number of calories you’re already getting from the sugar-sweetened beverage. Consuming a single can of a sugar-sweetened beverage every day, such as a soda or juice, can lead to a weight gain of around 10 to 15 pounds per year!

Find nutrition info on more than 8,000 foods, plus track the foods you eat and compare them to your nutrition targets using the USDA’s easy-to-use online SuperTracker.