This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclaimer for more info.
Hidden sugars can be just as the term implies: hidden where most people wouldn’t ordinarily expect a lot of sugar to be present.
In my youthful days, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to sugar content on nutrition labels of food products. Instead, I focused on calorie count, because I equated calories with becoming overweight and less healthy. As I’ve acknowledged on multiple occasions, however, my past approach to health and healthy eating was lacking.
How much sugar foods contain is important, because eating too much sugar is generally bad for your health. Yet, why sugar is bad for you is not super simple. We will touch on that later.
This article will address hidden sugars, popular foods with hidden sugars, how to avoid them, and more.
What are “Hidden Sugars”?
The term “hidden sugars” quite simply refers to sugars in food items that people wouldn’t normally associate with containing sugar.
Food producers and manufacturers add sugar to food items primarily to enhance the taste. Although other uses for sugar exist, such as to create bulk and texture in baked goods or to promote caramelization.
Food manufacturers know the trifecta for making a food “addictive” is to include fats, sugars, and salt. Science has documented how fat and sugar can activate pleasure responses in the brain similar to drugs. The more sugar, fat, and salt people eat, the higher the risk of becoming addicted to and overconsuming these substances.
For obvious reasons, food manufacturers want consumers to be addicted to their food products. Addiction = more profit!
Yet, sugar isn’t always in the form of regular, table sugar. Dozens of types and forms of sugar exist, such as dextrose, fructose (or anything else ending in “-ose”), dehydrated cane juice, rice syrup (and any other syrups), etc.
Thus, ingredient lists can name any one of these varieties. So, just because an ingredient list doesn’t say “sugar” doesn’t necessarily mean the food item is sugar-free.
Also, all carbohydrates like flour and starches convert to sugar in the body, so still invoke a glycemic response (i.e. rise in blood sugar). So, if you want to reduce sugar in your diet, you also have to reduce carbohydrates.
The Dangers of Too Many Hidden Sugars
Rather, consuming excess sugar combines with other elements or factors to negative health consequences.
For instance, studies have shown that sugar’s addictive qualities include withdrawal symptoms similar to withdrawal from opiate drugs. Considering that a lot of high sugar foods tend to be ultra-processed foods, and that ultra-processed foods have been linked to negative health effects, then it’s probably safe to say that individuals who consume too much sugar also consume all of the other unhealthy substances that may be in processed foods (e.g. trans fats, chemicals).
Also, eating high-sugar foods is more likely to result in excess energy (i.e. calories) that your body can’t sufficiently expend, thereby leading to weight gain. Weight gain, of course, increases the likelihood of negative health consequences.
If you think about it, 4 grams of sugar equates to just over 1 teaspoon of sugar. Thus, although “4 grams” may not sound like a lot, it adds up, and visualizing eating multiple teaspoons of sugar a day is probably off-putting to many people. However, when you don’t see this visual, eating a lot of hidden sugar each day is very easy and unnoticeable to most people.
Where You May Find Hidden Sugars Generally
If you read our article, Is Fat-Free or Low-Fat Healthy for You? 15+ Studies Say “No” to Popular Beliefs, you will see that food manufacturers regularly add sugars to low-fat or fat-free versions of foods to replace the flavor and texture that fat otherwise adds. Thus, fat-free and low-fat foods usually have more sugar than full-fat counterparts.
The above often applies to low-fat and fat-free dairy products, salad dressings, condiments, and baked goods.
Even products labelled as “healthy” or “organic” can contain a lot of hidden sugars. For instance, many people consider smoothies and salad dressings as generally “healthy,” but certain kinds can contain quite a bit of sugar. If you read our article, Make Green Smoothies Healthier + Low-Sugar Guaranteed, we discuss how one cup of Naked Juice’s Green Machine smoothie has 28 grams of sugar, for instance.
Also, many people don’t consider “savory” foods to be sweet, but many savory foods can actually contain a notable amount of sugar, particularly premade or packaged food items. For instance, pizza or pasta sauce can contain a lot of sugar, as well as many Asian dishes (including ones that are not as obviously sweet as dishes like orange chicken).
Anything involving sauces or condiments in general can be high in sugar.
Thus, you have to consider what’s actually in your food, not just whether you normally consider that food item to be “healthy” or a more savory than sweet type of food.
Keeping all of the above in mind, in the next section, we lay out six popular food items where you may not think to check the actual sugar content, because the food is generally considered a “health food” or otherwise.
Hidden Sugars in 6 Popular Food Items
Although lots of different food items can contain sugar (as set forth in our prior section), here are six popular foods where people may not think to check the actual sugar content. Whether because these foods are widely considered “health foods” or simply more savory in nature.
1. Granola/Energy Bars
A lot of people consider granola or energy bars (or any type of bar, really) as “healthy” snacks. This is likely because companies tout bars as having whole, unprocessed ingredients like oats, nuts, seeds, and dried fruits. However, many bars contain added sugar that drives up the sugar count.
For instance, one Kellogg’s strawberry Nutri Grain bar contains 13 grams of sugar (12 of which are added sugars!), even though Kellogg’s promotes having the bars as part of a balanced breakfast. Many people also consider Clif bars to be healthy, and they have an inspiring image of a mountain climber on the wrapper, but one chocolate chip Clif bar contains 23 grams of sugar.
Thus, you should ensure that your bar has a reasonable sugar content. For instance, these Primal Kitchen energy bars boast a very low sugar content of 3 grams per bar. However, as you might expect, they aren’t very sweet as a result.
No one should be surprised that cereals like Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Fruit Loops have a lot of sugar, but many people overlook the sugar content in cereals that normally sound more innocent or even “healthy.”
For instance, Kellogg’s promotes Raisin Bran as a “heart healthy” choice, suggesting people should eat it for good health. However, one cup of Raisin Bran contains 17 grams of sugar, and most people probably eat more than 1 cup of cereal in their bowls each morning.
I also remember when Kellogg’s heavily marketed Special K cereals for weight loss, but the Special K label now has many flavors, including Special K Fruit ‘n Yogurt, which contains 13 grams of sugar per cup.
A lot of people also view granola cereals as healthy for the same reasons listed under our blurb on granola bars. Thus, people may eat granola as or with cereal, with yogurt, or with other breakfast items. However, many granolas can be high in sugar.
For instance, Kashi Go Crunch granola cereal used to be marketed as “Kashi Go Lean Crunch,” but it has 13 grams of sugar per ¾ cup serving. Maybe that’s why they dropped the “Lean” from the name?
3. Trail Mix / Dried Fruits
Many people consider trail mix a healthy snack, because it normally consists of unprocessed ingredients like nuts and dried fruit. Aside from the addition of unhealthy oils that some packaged mixes may contain, sugar is another culprit.
Some packaged trail mixes contain chocolates or yogurt bites that add sugar. Planter’s Nuts and Chocolate Trail Mix, for instance, apparently has 10 grams of sugar per 3 tablespoons of trail mix. Most people will eat a lot more than 3 tbsp. of trail mix in one go.
Also, manufacturers sometimes use dried fruit that has been bathed in sugar, adding an unnecessary layer of sugar. I acknowledge tart fruits like cranberries may need sugar to make them palatable, but don’t see the need to add sugar to sweeter fruits like mango or raisins.
For instance, Gourmet Nut Power Up Mega Omega Trail Mix sounds very healthy, but contains dried cranberries and mangos that both have added sugar. The trail mix contains about 10 grams of sugar per 1 ounce (which is slightly less than the 3 tbsp. mentioned for the Planter’s mix above).
Also, you must remember that fruit itself contains sugar (i.e. fructose). Studies have shown excessive fructose consumption can cause negative health consequences.
Many people consider fruit as harmless, which it can be in moderation. When fruit is dried, the size becomes significantly smaller, but the sugar content remains the same. Thus, because dried fruit lacks the water volume to help fill you up, consuming a large amount of dried fruit is a lot easier than consuming the same number of fresh fruit.
Thus, you are more likely to overindulge in dried fruit, and therefore, consume a lot of sugar.
Since people usually consider soup to be a filling, savory food, you may not expect much sugar. However, some soups actually have a notable amount of sugar (among other unwholesome ingredients, if in packaged or canned form).
For instance, one can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup has 30 grams of sugar. One can of their tomato alphabet soup that you may feed to your kids has 22.5 grams of sugar. One can of Progresso Butternut Squash soup contains 17 grams of sugar.
Thus, just be mindful that if you’re getting a tomato- or squash-based soup, it can carry a lot of sugar with it.
5. Instant Oatmeal
Oatmeal is often touted as a very heart-healthy food. However, unless you get plain, unflavored oatmeal, instant oatmeal packets can come loaded with sugar.
I used to eat flavored instant oatmeal all the time as a kid (I probably tried all the flavors!), and I’m sure my parents considered it a more wholesome breakfast because it was oatmeal. However, one packet of Quaker Apples & Cinnamon oatmeal has 11 grams of sugar, and their fruitless Cinnamon and Spice flavor has 10 grams of sugar per packet.
Thus, if you choose to eat oatmeal, it’s healthiest to buy plain rolled oats and to add your own low-sugar flavoring.
6. Sports or Energy Drinks, and Other Beverages
Manufacturers heavily promote sports drinks and energy drinks as “healthy,” often associating their products with well-known, agile athletes. However, many consumers don’t exert need nearly as much energy as these athletes and can get electrolytes from less sugary sources.
A lot of sports drinks like Powerade or Gatorade are actually really high in sugar. Thus, if electrolytes are what you’re seeking to combat dehydration, then coconut water is notoriously high in electrolytes. One cup of C2O Pure Coconut Water has 7 grams of sugar, compared to 14 grams of sugar in one cup of Gatorade Lemon-Lime sports drink. (A regular, 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade, which most people would drink in one go, has 34 grams of sugar.)
Beverages are generally among the worst offenders of carrying excessive sugar, whether in the form of a prepared coffee drink from a coffee shop to juices or smoothies from a juice bar. For instance, one Starbucks Caramel Frappuccino can contain around 55 grams of sugar, or one Caribbean Passion smoothie from Jamba Juice can contain 55 grams of sugar.
Most people consume more than one smoothie or prepared coffee drink a day, so consider how much sugar a person consumes in one day if including one of these drinks!
Instead of indulging in sugar-containing beverages, best to stick to water or tea (You should see our article, 6 Incredible Health Benefits of Green Tea, for additional reasons to drink tea!).
Ways to Avoid Hidden Sugars
Read nutrition and ingredient labels. Nutrition labels will tell you the total sugar count in food items. Also, if you’re curious between natural and added sugars, the U.S. government in 2016 called for food manufacturers to start listing the amount of “Added Sugars” as well.
As mentioned earlier in our article, if you need a more visual aid of how much sugar is in a serving, 4 grams of sugar equates to just over 1 teaspoon of sugar. Thus, if you consider the 55 grams of sugar in a Starbucks Frappuccino, envision consuming almost 14 teaspoons of sugar in one go.
If you’re buying something without a nutrition label, like a store-made bakery item, then you can glean how much sugar may be contained by the ingredient list. Food labels are supposed to list ingredients in the order of the most prevalent ingredient to the least. Thus, if sugar is one of the first ingredients listed, you know that product contains a lot of sugar.
In general, you should make your own versions of just about anything. For instance, rather than buying flavored yogurt, you should buy plain yogurt and add your own flavoring agents. (Please read our article, What is the Best Alternative Sweetener?, for ideas on sweeteners aside from sugar.)
If you have to buy packaged or pre-made items, then you should get in the habit of reading ingredient lists and nutrition labels. That way, you won’t fall victim to consuming too many obvious or hidden sugars.
Please share your thoughts on hidden sugars below, including if you have any other foods that we didn’t list, but which people should think about before consuming.