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6 Surprising Sources of Sugar

Its secret hiding places revealed


Where does sugar hide in foods? You may be surprised. Get label savvy and sleuth out where the sweet stuff lurks.

While cupcakes, cookies, ice cream, and other sweet treats are easily identified as sugary foods, not all sources of sugar are so easy to spot. With sugar lurking in all kinds of unexpected places, including a number of otherwise healthy foods, many consumers may unknowingly be putting their health at risk by eating too much of it.

How much is too much?

Weight gain, type 2 diabetes, dementia, death from heart disease, and some cancers are just a few of the health conditions science is connecting to excess sugar consumption.

In response to growing concerns over the negative impact added sugar may have on our health, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that no more than 10 percent of an individual’s daily caloric intake come from added sugar. The WHO further advises that reducing this amount to less than 5 percent would have additional health benefits.

For the average adult with a normal BMI, 5 percent amounts to 25 g (or approximately 6 tsp/30 mL) of sugar.

Get label savvy

The best way to sleuth out unwanted sugar is to look for it on product labels. In Canada, this may be about to become a whole lot easier.

In July, the Canadian government proposed changes to the nutritional labelling system that would require food manufacturers to state clearly how much sugar in a product is derived from added sources.

Health Canada also proposed sugars be grouped together in the ingredient list, making it easier for consumers to tell just how much of a product is sugar. As ingredients are listed by weight, the higher up sugar is on the ingredient list, the more sugar that product contains.

Surprisingly sugary

Before adding any of the following unassuming items to your shopping cart, be sure to check their labels for added sugar. You may be surprised by what you find.

Flavoured instant oatmeal

Packed full of cholesterol-lowering fibre that keeps hunger at bay, oatmeal has long been renowned as a healthy way to start the day. Unfortunately, when it comes to certain types of instant oatmeal, you may get more sugar than you bargained for. One packet of flavoured instant oatmeal can contain 12 g or more sugar per serving.

Replace it with: Old-fashioned oats, which contain just 1 g of natural sugar per 1/2 cup (40 g) serving. Mix in your own low-sugar toppings such as fresh berries, cinnamon, sliced almonds, or sugar-free nut butters for added flavour. In a hurry? Make it the night before, or choose unflavoured instant oatmeal without added sugars.

Whole grain bread

Linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer, whole grain products seem like a wise food choice. However, in the case of whole grain bread, this healthy reputation may be tainted by the addition of sugar. Many whole grain breads contain around 3 g of sugar per slice.

Replace it with: Leafy greens. When making a sandwich, skip the bread altogether and try wrapping your fillings in a large collard green leaf instead. You will cut out not only the sugar, but also some calories.

Fruit-flavoured yogurt

While yogurt is a good source of calcium and protein, it is also often a source of unwanted sugar.

Just 1 cup (245 g) of plain low-fat yogurt contains around 17 g of natural sugar in the form of lactose. Add in sweeteners and fruit for flavour and yogurt’s sugar content can skyrocket. The same serving size of fruit-flavoured low-fat yogurt contains around 47 g of sugar.

Replace it with: Quark or cottage cheese. Quark is a soft cheese with a similar texture to sour cream. In Eastern Europe it is commonly eaten for breakfast topped with fresh fruit. A 1 cup (200 g) serving of quark contains approximately 6 g of sugar. Cottage cheese is packed with protein, is tasty topped with fruit or nuts, and has 8 g of sugar per 1 cup serving.

Spaghetti sauce

A good source of dietary fibre, vitamin A, and lycopene, tomato sauce over pasta may seem like a perfect quick and nutritious weeknight dinner option. Unfortunately, finding a tomato sauce that doesn’t have added sugar may be a difficult task. Many premade sauces found on grocery store shelves contain 6 g or more sugar per 1/2 cup (125 mL) serving.

Replace it with: Read labels carefully to find an option without added sugars, or make your own sauce. Many basic marinara sauce recipes can be easily whipped up in less than 30 minutes using simple ingredients such as crushed or diced tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and spices. Time crunched? Make a big batch on the weekend and freeze it for later use.

Barbecue sauce

A kitchen staple used to flavour grilled meat, spice up a sandwich, or dip veggies in, this versatile condiment often comprises more sugar than anything else. Sugar, or one of its many forms, is often the first ingredient listed on the label of many barbecue sauces. One popular brand contains 12 g of sugar per 2 Tbsp (36 g) serving.

Replace it with: A dry spice rub that includes smoked paprika. Smoked paprika has a sweet and smoky taste similar to barbecue sauce—but with none of the sugar.

Vitamin-enhanced water

Water enhanced with health-promoting vitamins may seem like a smart choice, but often is not much better than a soft drink. One popular brand of vitamin-enhanced water contains 32 g of sugar per 591 mL serving. In comparison, a can of pop typically contains 32 g of sugar.

Replace it with: DIY spa water. Add a few slices of your favourite fruits, veggies, or herbs to water. The nutrients and flavours of these additions will not only give the water a refreshing taste, but also infuse it with health-promoting nutrients, minerals, and antioxidants. a

Sugar’s many names

Don’t be fooled by one of sugar’s many aliases—sugar by any other name is still sugar. When reading labels, watch out for the following:

  • ingredients ending in “-ose”—including glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and maltose
  • syrups and nectars such as agave nectar, maple syrup, and high fructose corn syrup
  • cane crystals, cane sugar, cane juice, or anything else cane-derived
  • malts such as barley malt, rice malt, and malt syrup
  • any of these: fruit juice concentrates, molasses, honey, corn sweetener, and maltodextrin


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