Avoiding Sugary Foods? Here’s What To Look Out For

Sugary foods don’t always taste sweet, and they may not say ‘sugar’ on the label
assortment of high sugar food and beverages

Juliet Capulet (of Romeo and Juliet fame) once said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” 

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Juliet was, of course, speaking of her star-crossed lover, Romeo Montague. But the sentiment is the same when it comes to sugars.

Your body loves sugar and can actually feel addicted to sugar. Because no matter its name (and it goes by a LOT of names), sugar still tastes as sweet.

But like Romeo and Juliet’s ill-fated romance, a dependence on sugar is bound to wind up in heartache. Consuming excessive sugar in your food and drinks puts you at higher risk for Type 2 diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease, heart disease and more.   

“Sugar, sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners are ubiquitous in processed foods and in our diets,” says registered dietitian Anna Taylor, RD, LD. “Many times, people don’t even realize how much sugar they’re eating because they don’t expect certain foods to be so loaded with it. And the labeling on packaged foods can be unclear.”

When you decide to break up with sugary foods, or at least cut back, it can be hard to know where to start. That’s because the sweet stuff is hiding in just about any bagged, boxed, jarred or frozen food you can imagine.

We talked with Taylor about the expected and unexpected foods that contain surprisingly high amounts of sugar and how you can spot the signs of hidden sugars in your food.

Sugary foods to avoid 

The American Heart Association (AHA) advises limiting added sugars to no more than: 

  • 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day for women, people assigned female at birth (AFAB) and kids over the age of 2. 
  • 36 grams (9 teaspoons) per day for men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB). 

But the average American consumes about three times more sugar per day than those recommendations. 

Part of the reason for that, Taylor says, is that sugar hides in more foods than you may know.

Some sugary foods are obvious. You probably already expect that there are high amounts of sugar in cakes, cookies, pastries, pies candies and other baked goods and dessert foods. 

But it’s more than that. 

The AHA says beverages are the leading source of added sugars in most people’s diets. That includes:

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  • Soft drinks.  
  • Fruit drinks. 
  • Sports drinks.  
  • Energy drinks. 
  • Coffee. 
  • Tea.  

And then, there are sugar-laden foods that don’t set off your sweet tooth but actually include surprising amounts of added sugar. For example: 

Food product Serving size Total sugars (rounded) 
Baked beans 1 cup 21 grams 
Bran cereal with raisins 1 cup 19 grams 
Protein bar 1 bar (53 grams) 8 grams 
Barbecue sauce 1 tablespoon 6 grams 
Granola bar 1 bar (21 grams) 6 grams 
Pasta sauce 1/2 cup 6 grams 
Ketchup 1 tablespoon 4 grams 
French salad dressing 1 tablespoon 3 grams 

These figures are based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The amount of sugar will vary by brand and other factors, but you get the idea.

And if you think getting “sugar-free” versions of these products are a healthier alternative, know that’s not necessarily the case. More on that in a bit.

Sugar’s many names

Sugar and sugar substitutes are rampant in the processed and packaged foods that are common in Americans’ diets. But simply scanning your nutritional labels for the word “sugar” isn’t enough to avoid the many variations of the stuff.

Added sugars can go by many (many!) names. So, it’s important to read between the lines and spot sugar that’s masquerading under an alias. 

Start by looking for ingredients on your nutrition labels that include the words “sugar,” “syrup” or words that end in “-ose.” Specifically, Taylor says you can be sure sugar is lurking in your foods if you see any of these ingredients:

  • Agave syrup or agave nectar. 
  • Barley malt or barley malt syrup. 
  • Beet sugar. 
  • Brown sugar or brown rice syrup. 
  • Cane juice, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice or dehydrated cane juice.  
  • Caramel.  
  • Carob syrup.  
  • Castor sugar.  
  • Coconut sugar or coconut palm sugar.  
  • Confectioner’s sugar.  
  • Corn sweetener.  
  • Corn syrup, corn syrup solids or high fructose corn syrup.  
  • Date sugar. 
  • Demerara sugar.  
  • Dextrin. 
  • Dextrose.  
  • Fructose.  
  • Fruit juice or fruit juice concentrate.  
  • Glucose.  
  • Golden sugar or golden syrup.  
  • Grape sugar.  
  • Honey.  
  • Icing sugar.  
  • Invert sugar or invert syrup.  
  • Lactose. 
  • Malt syrup.  
  • Malto, maltodextrin or maltose. 
  • Mannose.  
  • Maple syrup.  
  • Molasses. 
  • Muscovado.  
  • Palm sugar. 
  • Powdered sugar.  
  • Raw sugar.  
  • Refiner’s syrup.  
  • Rice syrup.  
  • Saccharose. 
  • Sorghum syrup.  
  • Sucrose.  
  • Sugar.  
  • Sweet sorghum.  
  • Syrup.  
  • Treacle. 
  • Turbinado sugar. 

Spotting artificial sweeteners 

But wait. There’s more!  

In addition to refined sugar, there’s a whole host of artificial sweeteners that also don’t benefit your health. And artificial sweeteners may be sneakier than refined sugar. That’s because foods that contain artificial sweeteners can be sold in packaged foods labeled as “sugar-free,” “no added sugar” or “diet.”  

If you’re looking to cut out the artificial stuff, you’ll want to also scan your labels for these ingredients: 

  • Acesulfame potassium (Sweet One® or Sunett®). 
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet® or Equal®). 
  • Saccharin (Sweet‘N Low®). 
  • Sucralose (Splenda®). 

And then there are the sugar alcohols 

Just when you thought it couldn’t get more complicated, buckle up. 

Sugar alcohols are yet another way that processed foods get an added sweet kick.  

Sugar alcohols are chemicals similar in structure to sugar. They’re found naturally in some foods in small amounts. But in packaged foods, they’re artificially created and used in large quantities to add a sweet taste while keeping calorie counts low. 

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Sugar alcohols are commonly used in packaged foods labeled as “low calorie,” “reduced calorie,” “keto-friendly” or “diabetes-friendly.” They go by names like:

  • Erythritol.  
  • Maltitol.  
  • Mannitol. 
  • Polydextrose.  
  • Sorbitol. 
  • Xylitol. 

Sugar alcohols have Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But recent research is shining a new light on their potential to be problematic.  

A recent study shows erythritol, in particular, is closely associated with an increased risk for “major adverse cardiovascular events,” including heart attack and stroke. And other sugar alcohols can cause stomach discomfort for some people. 

How to cut back or avoid sugar 

If you find yourself overconsuming sugary foods, it may be time to reevaluate your relationship with sugar. 

Sugar and other sweeteners hijack your body’s reward and pleasure centers, in much the same way that addictive substances do.

“Your body doesn’t need added sugar in order to function,” Taylor explains. “But sugar lowers the availability of your dopamine and opioid receptors. Essentially, it can trick you into thinking you need it.” 

Knowing what sugary foods to look out for is a start. Next comes the harder part. Breaking your sugar addiction

Cutting out added sugar is a lifestyle change. And a big one. So, be easy on yourself, and take it slow, Taylor advises. Think of it less like ripping off a bandage. More like training for a marathon. 

Taylor’s top advice: 

  • Focus on a balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein and fiber. This will help give your body balanced fuel, so it won’t ask for the “fast fuel” that sugar provides. 
  • Drink plenty of water. That can help dilute the sugar in your system to avoid sugar spikes and reduce sugar cravings. 
  • Keep a food journal. That can help you find patterns. Do you eat more sugar at a certain time of day? Do you feel stressed or sad when you reach for sugary foods and drinks? 
  • Talk with a healthcare provider if you’re finding it too difficult to lower your intake. They can provide personalized recommendations. 

Avoiding sugary foods is a big commitment — and a commendable one. Know that any steps you can take to lower your intake will benefit your health and lower your risk of chronic disease. Now that’s sweet. 

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