Eating a lot of added sugar is bad for your health.
It’s been linked to illnesses like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
However, most people aren’t pouring lots of sugar on their food.
A large part of your daily sugar intake is hidden inside various packaged and processed foods, many of which are marketed as healthy.
Here are 8 ways that food companies hide the sugar content of foods.
1. Calling sugar by a different name
Sugar is the general name given to the short-chain carbs that give your food a sweet taste. However, sugar has many different forms and names.
You may recognize some of these names, such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose. Others are harder to identify.
Because food companies often use sugars with unusual names, this ingredient can be difficult to spot on labels.
To stop yourself from accidentally eating too much sugar, look out for these added sugars on food labels:
- Barley malt
- Beet sugar
- Brown sugar
- Buttered sugar
- Cane juice crystals
- Cane sugar
- Caster sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Crystalline fructose
- Date sugar
- Dextran, malt powder
- Ethyl maltol
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Golden sugar
- Invert sugar
- Muscovado sugar
- Palm sugar
- Organic raw sugar
- Rapadura sugar
- Evaporated cane juice
- Confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
Sugar is also added to foods in the form of syrups. Syrups are usually thick liquids made from large quantities of sugar dissolved in water.
They are found in a wide variety of foods but most often in cold drinks or other liquids.
Common syrups to look out for on food labels include:
- Agave nectar
- Carob syrup
- Golden syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Oat syrup
- Rice bran syrup
- Rice syrup
SUMMARY Sugar has many different names and forms, which can make it difficult to spot on food labels. Watch out for syrups as well.
2. Using many different types of sugar
Ingredients are listed by weight on packaged foods, with the main ingredients listed first. The more of one item, the higher up on the list it appears.
Food manufacturers often take advantage of this. To make their products appear healthier, some use smaller amounts of three or four types of sugar in a single product.
These sugars then appear further down on the ingredients list, making a product look low in sugar — when sugar is one of its main ingredients.
For example, some protein bars — while considered healthy — are very high in added sugar. There may be as much as 7.5 teaspoons (30 grams) of added sugar in a single bar.
When you read food labels, look out for multiple types of sugar.
SUMMARY Food companies may use three or four different types of sugar in a single product, making it appear lower in sugar than it is.
3. Adding sugar to foods you would least expect
It’s common sense that a piece of cake or a candy bar probably harbors a lot of sugar.
Still, some food manufacturers pour sugar into foods that aren’t always considered sweet. Examples include breakfast cereals, spaghetti sauce, and yogurt.
Some yogurt cups can contain as many as 6 teaspoons (29 grams) of sugar.
Even whole-grain breakfast bars, which may seem like a healthy choice, can pack up to 4 teaspoons (16 grams) of sugar.
As many people don’t realize that these foods have added sugar, they’re unaware of how much they’re consuming.
If you’re buying packaged or processed foods, make sure you read the label and check the sugar content — even if you think the food is healthy.
SUMMARY Sugar is hidden in many foods — even ones that don’t taste sweet. Make sure to check the labels of packaged or processed foods.
4. Using ‘healthy’ sugars instead of sucrose
Food companies also make some of their products appear benign by swapping sugar for an alternative sweetener that’s considered healthy.
These unrefined sweeteners are usually made from the sap, fruit, flowers, or seeds of plants. Agave nectar is one example.
Products with these sweeteners often feature labels like “contains no refined sugar” or “refined sugar-free.” This simply means that they don’t contain white sugar.
These sugars can appear healthier, since some may have a slightly lower glycemic index (GI) score than regular sugar and provide a few nutrients.
However, the amount of nutrients these sugars provide is usually very low. What’s more, unrefined sugar is still added sugar.
Currently, no evidence suggests that it’s beneficial to swap one form of sugar for another, particularly if you’re still eating too much overall.
Common high-sugar sweeteners that are often labeled healthy include:
- Agave syrup
- Birch syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- Cane sugar
- Sugar beet syrup
If you see these sweeteners on a food label, remember that they’re still sugar and should be eaten sparingly.
SUMMARY Food manufacturers sometimes replace white table sugar with unrefined products. While this can make the product appear healthier, unrefined sugar is still sugar.
5. Combining added sugars with natural sugars on the ingredients list
Certain foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, contain naturally occurring sugars. Unlike added sugar, these usually aren’t a health concern.
This is because naturally occurring sugars are generally difficult to eat in large amounts.
Although some fruits contain high amounts of naturally occurring sugar, their fiber and antioxidant contents mitigate the rise in blood sugar. Fiber in fruits and vegetables is also quite filling, making these foods harder to overeat.
Additionally, whole foods provide many beneficial nutrients that can reduce your risk of disease.
For example, one cup (240 ml) of milk contains 3 teaspoons (13 grams) of sugar. Yet, you also get 8 grams of protein and around 25% of your daily requirements for calcium and vitamin D.
The same size serving of Coke contains nearly twice the amount of sugar and no other nutrients.
Keep in mind that food labels don’t distinguish between natural and added sugars. Instead, they list all of the sugars as a single amount.
This makes it tricky to identify how much sugar is found naturally in your food and how much is added.
However, if you’re eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods — as opposed to packaged or processed items — most of the sugars you’ll consume will be natural.
SUMMARY Food labels often lump added and naturally occurring sugar together into one total amount. Thus, it can be hard to determine how much sugar is added to certain products.
6. Adding a health claim to products
It’s not always easy to tell which products on the shelf are healthy and which aren’t.
Manufacturers often plaster their packaging with health claims, making some items seem healthy when they’re really full of added sugar.
The most common examples include labels like “natural,” “healthy,” “low-fat,” “diet,” and “light.” While these products may be low in fat and calories, they’re often packed with added sugar.
Do your best to ignore these claims and carefully read the label instead.
SUMMARY Products with health claims, such as “diet,” “natural,” or “low-fat,” may still be loaded with sugar.
7. Lowering the portion size
The food industry regularly makes the listed portion size small in order to distort your sense of how much sugar you’re consuming.
In other words, a single product, such as a mini pizza or bottle of soda, may be composed of several servings.
While the amount of sugar in each of these servings might be low, you would typically eat two or three times that amount in one sitting.
To avoid this trap, carefully examine the number of servings per container.
If a small food item has multiple servings, you might end up eating more sugar than you intended.
SUMMARY Food companies often reduce the portion size to make products appear lower in sugar.
8. Making sweet versions of a low-sugar brand
You might know that some of your favorite brands of food are low in sugar.
However, manufacturers sometimes piggyback on an established brand by releasing a new version that packs far more sugar.
This practice is quite common with breakfast cereals. For example, a whole-grain cereal that’s low in sugar may appear in newfangled packaging with added flavors or different ingredients.
This can confuse people who assume that the new version is just as healthy as their usual choice.
If you’ve noticed different packaging for some of your frequent purchases, be sure to check the labels.
SUMMARY Low-sugar brands may still spin out high-sugar products, potentially attracting loyal customers who may not realize the new version isn’t as healthy as the original.
The bottom line
Added sugar can be difficult to spot.
The easiest way to avoid added sugar is to avoid highly processed goods, selecting unprocessed, whole foods instead.
If you do buy packaged items, make sure you learn how to spot added sugar on food labels.