If you’ve ever tried to eliminate added sugars from your diet, you know it only begins with cutting out the candy, soda, and desserts. Sugar shows up in a surprising number of foods, often unexpectedly sneaking into ones that don’t even taste sweet.
Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar
Before we dive into the list of sugar-loaded foods, you should know that all sugar is not created equally. There are actually two main sources of sugar: natural sugar and added sugar.
Added sugars are those added to foods to enhance flavor and do not naturally occur within the food. “Added sugar is what I call ’empty calories,’ because it provides no real nutritional value,” says Krista Maguire, RD, CSSD, and nutrition manager for Openfit. There are tons of different kinds of added sugars, so here’s a great list of common code names to help you spot the sweet culprit in your foods.
Naturally occurring sugars are native to the foods and are usually found in things like fruit, some vegetables, and dairy.
And here’s the big difference: If you compare berries that have natural sugar and a piece of candy that has added sugar, they may have the same amount of total sugar, but the fruit comes loaded with a lot more good stuff. “It has additional components like fiber and phytonutrients that help prevent that rapid blood sugar spike that can come along with refined foods,” Maguire says.
Surprising Foods That Contain Added Sugar
To help you make more informed dietary choices, here’s a list of surprising foods that are sneaking added sugar into your diet, and tips on how you can enjoy those foods without all those empty calories. And when in doubt: read the nutrition label!
1. Protein Bars
Many people assume a protein bar is a quick and efficient energy source for a pre-workout boost… but they’re usually packing as much sugar as a candy bar. Some popular protein and energy bars can have around 26 grams of sugar, which is more than the daily recommended limit of 25 grams for women. (Men get up to 36 grams of added sugar.)
Instead, go for a more natural protein bar like this RXBAR®, which contains no added sugars and is instead naturally sweetened with dates.
Sure, yogurt can be a solid high-protein snack, but you really need to read the labels and understand the difference between added and natural sugars in this case. There are natural sugars in yogurt, which is why this 6-oz. plain version from FAGE® has 5 grams of sugar. But when you look at the ingredient list, there aren’t any added sugars. That’s great!
However, be careful because the sweet stuff starts to add up when you dive into the varieties that contain a fruit accompaniment or other added flavoring. Sure, there is some extra natural sugar from the fruit, but there’s nothing natural about the cane sugar that is often added as well.
“Yogurts can be quite high in sugars if you’re choosing a flavored one,” says Cassie Berger, MS, RDN of Pacific Nutrition Partners. “I recommend choosing plain yogurts in most cases and adding your own fresh fruits for flavor.”
Take a moment to really think about what kind of bread you’re choosing for your sandwiches or morning toast. You might be choosing a kind that’s unnecessarily filled with the sweet stuff. Some cinnamon raisin bread can contain up to 4.5 grams of sugar per slice, while some white bread can have 3 grams per slice.
Ezekiel 4:9® Sprouted Whole Grain Bread, on the other hand, has 0 grams sugar, 4 grams protein, 3 grams fiber, and only 80 calories per one-slice serving.
Granola can be a delightful, crunchy treat, but many brands also load it up with sugar. Some can have around 12 grams of sugar per serving, if not more. “The best way to still enjoy these foods while avoiding unnecessary added sugar is to first and foremost make it yourself,” Maguire says. “Having control over the ingredients you use helps you create dishes that are tasty and healthy.”
Here’s a DIY granola recipe that’s sweetened with chunks of sweet apples and raisins that have natural sugars instead of the processed stuff.
5. Peanut Butter
“Another hidden source of sugar is peanut butter,” warns Berger. “Even brands that call themselves ‘natural’ often have sugar as the second ingredient. Check the label. The only ingredients you should see in peanut butter are peanuts and salt.”
If you’re looking for a solid option, try Laura Scudder’s® Old Fashioned Peanut Butter that doesn’t have any added sugar.
6. Salad Dressings
You probably don’t want to drench your lettuce in a sugary sauce, but many dressings are packed with added sugar. Some varieties contain up to 6 grams of sugar per serving, often in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.
And don’t assume that a salad dressing is healthy because it’s labeled “diet” or “lite.” These dressings will often replace fat with sugar, so again, check your labels! While many dressings use some sort of sweetening, one good low-sugar option is Annie’s® Organic Green Goddess Dressing. Or, if you want to nix the sweet stuff completely, just dress your greens with the classic combo of olive oil and vinegar!
Many people reach for smoothies when they want a healthy treat. However, store-bought smoothies can far exceed your daily sugar recommendation.
Now, one thing to keep in mind with smoothies is that they include a mix of natural and added sugars. The natural stuff often comes from fruits, while the added stuff can come from bases like lemonade, sherbet, and frozen yogurt. While you don’t need to shun all natural sugars found in fruits, it’s important to be aware of just how much you’re consuming and what else you might be getting from the store-bought smoothies.
For a healthier smoothie option, it’s best to make your own so you know exactly what’s in it. To sweeten your smoothies, try adding dates. “Dates are very high in [natural] sugar, which makes them good at sweetening food, and they also contain fiber, antioxidants, and minerals, including potassium, calcium, and magnesium,” Berger says.
8. Almond Milk
Many consumers have switched from dairy milk to nut milks, assuming it’s a healthier option. So you might be surprised to learn that some almond milk brands pack in up to 7 grams of sugar in their “original” varieties. But that makes sense once you look at the nutrition label and see that cane sugar is the second ingredient.
That doesn’t mean all nut milks are off limits, though. Just be smart about what kinds you choose and opt for unsweetened versions, like Silk® Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Milk.
It’s a no-brainer that some cereals are packed with sugar, like the ones that target children with their cartoon characters on the boxes. The trickier cereals are the ones that sound healthy, but sneak in sugar under code words like “high-fructose corn syrup,” “brown rice syrup,” “agave nectar,” and “evaporated cane juice.”