Trying to kick added sugars to the curb? Here’s why and how to spot added sugar, plus some healthy alternatives to high sugar foods.
The American Heart Association announced earlier this week that added sugars are putting U.S. kids at risk for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and dental issues. This isn’t the first time added sugars have made the news for their impact on our health. A 2014 study found that added sugar contributes more to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke than added salt in food.
On top of the health issues, sugar is bad for the planet. Sugar production is devastating fresh water supplies in parts of India and Pakistan. The sugar trade is also helping to fuel the problem of land grabs and international disputes. People in the developing world are losing their homes, so that farmers can plant more sugarcane and GMO sugar beets.
How to Spot Added Sugar
Sugar is a great preservative, a cheap filler ingredient, and – let’s be honest – it tastes good. That trifecta makes it an ideal additive in packaged foods, and not just cheap ones. Organic treats also contain plenty of added sugars, though they go under different names.
Here in the U.S., a new nutrition label is going to specifically list the amount of added sugars in our foods, but that label isn’t coming until 2018. For now, it’s up to us as savvy consumers to spot added sugars in ingredients lists.
When you’re reading food labels, keep in mind that the closer to the top of the ingredients lists, the more of that ingredient is in the food. So, if evaporated cane juice is the first ingredient, chances are it’s the main source of sugar in that granola bar you’re eyeing. If it’s the last thing listed, that means less added sugar. I like to look at the total grams of sugar, then see what added sugars, if any, are listed in the ingredients.
Sugar isn’t the only added sweetener in packaged food. Here are some other names for added sugars:
- syrup (such as high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, or maple syrup)
- malt (contains maltose)
- cane (such as evaporated cane juice or cane sugar)
- agave nectar
- fructose (natural sugar from fruits)
- lactose (natural sugar from milk)
- sucrose (common table sugar; made from fructose and glucose)
- maltose (sugar made from grain)
- glucose (simply sugar, product of photosynthesis)
- dextrose (form of glucose)
13 Foods High in Added Sugar & Alternatives
Below are some foods that commonly contain a lot of added sugars, plus healthier alternatives. Some of these – like ice cream – are no-brainers. Saying you want to cut back or cut out added sugars is one thing. Doing it is another, and having alternatives to sweet treats is a good way to stay on track.
1. Ice cream – If you’ve never tried making Nice Cream, you are in for such a treat! It’s rich and creamy, like ice cream, but it doesn’t contain all of the added sugars. Instead, it gets its sweetness from whole fruit.
2. BBQ Sauce – Sweet sauces like BBQ and ketchup contain a shocking amount of sugar. Instead, stock your fridge with my easy homemade BBQ sauce. It’s date-sweetened, and you can control how sweet it is by adding more dates or backing off on them. To convert this to a ketchup recipe, just leave out the molasses and all of the spices except the garlic, then up the dates as needed.
3. Instant Oatmeal – Those handy packets of instant oats are loaded with a shocking amount of sugar. You don’t have to give up convenience to have delicious oats at your fingertips. Instead, just mix up a big batch of overnight oatmeal on Sunday evening, and divide it up into single-serving containers. You’ll have grab-heat-go oats to eat all week long.
4. Cookies – Guys, I’ll be honest here: cookies are my weakness, and I still make cookies with added sugar from time to time. When I’m craving cookies but don’t want the added sugar, though, I turn to these super easy raisin cookies. They’re even toddler approved!
5. Soda – Soda and other sugary drinks like sweet tea are incredibly high in sugar. Check out these alternatives to water to help replace the sugar drinks in your life with healthy alternatives that are still fun to drink.
6. Canned Fruit -Fruit is so healthy! Let’s not ruin it with a bunch of added sugars. Choose fresh or frozen (not frozen in syrup) fruit instead of canned.
7. Pudding – Pudding is marketed as a snack for kids, but it is PACKED with sugar. Try making this healthier, homemade pudding instead. To make it free of added sugars, choose the date paste option.
8. Quick Breads – Breakfasty quick bread like muffins and banana bread contain a lot of added sugar. Next time you want to make a quick bread, try this recipe. The whole batch of muffins only contains 2 tablespoons of added sugars, and if your bananas are ripe enough, even that is optional!
9. Granola Bars – I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but most granola bars are basically glorified candy bars. They are loaded up with added sugars. If you like keeping a box of bars on hand, try Larabars. They are made with fruit, nuts, spices, and nothing else. You can also make your own fruit-sweetened granola bars at home!
10. Cereal – Cereal companies love to tell you that their products are a healthy way to start the day, but most of the cereals on store shelves are sugared up. You can do some careful label-reading to find healthier packaged cereal, or you can mix up your breakfast with some of the healthy breakfast options listed above.
11. Bread – As if bread didn’t have a bad enough rep, you now need to watch out for added sugars in those loaves. Like cereal, you can do careful label-reading to find healthier breads. You can also make your own. Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day is a great place to start, if you’re new to bread-making.
12. Pasta Sauce – Jarred pasta sauce is super convenient, but it can also contain a lot of sugar. Make your own pasta sauce instead! You control the sugar, and you can try really fun sauces like this carrot-miso sauce for pasta.
13. Salad Dressing – Many bottled salad dressings full of added sugars. Try making your own dressing instead! Not every dressing on this list is free of added sugars, but there are plenty of added sugar-free options to choose from.