By Helen West, RD
Many people are now trying to minimize their sugar intake, but it’s easy to underestimate how much you’re actually consuming. One of the reasons is that many foods contain hidden sugars, including some foods that you wouldn’t even consider to be sweet.
In fact, even products marketed as “light” or “low-fat” often contain more sugar than the regular versions (6). The American Heart Association recommends that women limit their added sugar intake to 6 teaspoons per day, while men should limit their intake to 9 teaspoons (7). A teaspoon of sugar contains 4 grams, so this amounts to 24 grams per day for women and 36 grams for men. Most people today eat much more than that.
Here are 18 foods and drinks that contain way more sugar than you would think.
1. Low-Fat Yogurt
Yogurt can be highly nutritious food. However, not all yogurt is created equal. Like many other low-fat products, low-fat yogurts have sugar added to them to enhance flavor.
For example, a single cup (245 grams) of low-fat yogurt can contain up to 47 grams of sugar, which is 12 teaspoons. This is more than the daily limit for men and women in just a single cup of so-called “healthy” yogurt (8).
Furthermore, low-fat yogurt doesn’t seem to have the same health benefits as full-fat yogurt (9, 10, 11, 12). It’s best to choose full-fat, natural, or Greek yogurt. Avoid yogurt that has been sweetened with sugar.
2. BBQ Sauce
BBQ sauce can make a tasty marinade or dip. However, 2 tablespoons of it can contain around 14 grams of sugar, or over 3 teaspoons (13).
In fact, up to 40% of the weight of BBQ sauce may be pure sugar (13). If you are liberal with your servings, this makes it easy to consume a lot of sugar without meaning to. To make sure you aren’t getting too much, check the labels and choose the sauce with the least amount of added sugar. And remember to watch your portions.
Ketchup is one of the most popular condiments worldwide, but like BBQ sauce, it is often loaded with sugar. Try to be mindful of your portion size when using ketchup and remember that a single tablespoon of ketchup contains 1 teaspoon of sugar (14).
4. Fruit Juice
Like whole fruit, fruit juice contains some vitamins and minerals. However, despite seeming like a healthy choice, these vitamins and minerals come with a large dose of sugar and very little fiber.
It usually takes a lot of fruit to produce a single glass of fruit juice, so you get much more sugar in a glass of juice than you would get by eating whole fruit. This makes it easy to consume a large amount of sugar quickly.
In fact, there can be just as much sugar in fruit juice as there is in a sugary drink like Coke. The poor health outcomes that have been convincingly linked to sugary soda may be linked to fruit juices too (15, 16, 17). It’s best to choose whole fruit and minimize your intake of fruit juices.
5. Spaghetti Sauce
Added sugars are often hidden in foods that we don’t even consider to be sweet, such as spaghetti sauce. All spaghetti sauces will contain some natural sugar given that they’re made with tomatoes.
However, many spaghetti sauces have extra sugar added to them as well. The best way to ensure you aren’t getting any unwanted sugar in your pasta sauce is to make your own.
However, if you need to buy pre-made spaghetti sauce, check the label and pick one that either doesn’t have sugar on the ingredients list or where it’s listed very close to the bottom. This indicates that it’s not a major ingredient.
6. Sports Drinks
Sports drinks can often be mistaken as a healthy choice for those who exercise. However, sports drinks are designed to hydrate and fuel trained athletes during prolonged, intense periods of exercise.
For this reason, they contain high amounts of added sugars that can be quickly absorbed and used for energy. In fact, a standard 20-oz (570 ml) bottle of a sports drink will contain 32 grams of added sugar and 159 calories, which is equivalent to 8 teaspoons of sugar (18).
Sports drinks are therefore categorized as “sugary drinks.” Like soda and fruit juice, they have also been linked with obesity and metabolic disease (19, 20, 21). Unless you’re a marathon runner or an elite athlete, then you should probably just stick to water while exercising. This is by far the best choice for most of us (22).
7. Chocolate Milk
Chocolate milk is milk that has been flavored with cocoa and sweetened with sugar. Milk itself is a very nutritious drink. It is a rich source of nutrients that are great for bone health, including calcium and protein. However, despite having all the nutritious qualities of milk, an 8-oz (230 ml) glass of chocolate milk comes with an extra 2 teaspoons of added sugar, which most of us could do without (23, 24).
Granola is often marketed as a low-fat health food, despite being high in both calories and sugar. The main ingredient in granola is oats. Plain rolled oats are well-balanced cereal containing carbs, protein, fat, and fiber.
However, the oats in granola have been combined with nuts and honey or other added sweeteners, which increases the amount of sugar and calories. In fact, 100 grams of granola contains nearly 400 calories and over 6 teaspoons of sugar (25, 26).
If you like granola, try choosing one with less added sugar or make your own. You can also add it as a topping to fruit or yogurt, rather than pouring a whole bowl.
9. Flavored Coffees
Flavored coffee is a popular trend, but the number of hidden sugars in these drinks can be staggering. Large flavored coffee in some coffeehouse chains can contain up to 25 teaspoons of sugar.
That’s equivalent to 100 grams of added sugar per serving, or nearly 3 times the amount you would get from a 12-oz (340 ml) can of Coke. Considering the strong link between sugary drinks and poor health, it’s probably best to stick to coffee without any flavored syrups or added sugar.
10. Iced Tea
Iced tea is chilled tea, usually sweetened with sugar or flavored with syrup. It’s popular in various forms and flavors around the world, and this means the sugar content can vary slightly.
Most commercially prepared iced teas will contain around 33 grams of sugar per 12-oz (340 ml) serving, which is about the same as a can of Coke. If you like tea, pick regular tea or choose iced tea that doesn’t have any sugars added.
11. Protein Bars
This has led people to believe that protein bars are a healthy snack. While there are some healthier protein bars on the market, many contain around 30 grams of added sugar, making them similar to a candy bar.
When choosing a protein bar, read the label and avoid those that are high in sugar. You can also eat high-protein food like yogurt instead.
Vitaminwater is marketed as a healthy drink containing added vitamins and minerals. However, like many other so-called “health drinks,” Vitaminwater comes with a large amount of added sugar.
In fact, a bottle of regular Vitaminwater contains 120 calories and 32 grams of sugar. Despite all the health claims, it’s wise to avoid Vitaminwater as much as possible. You could opt for the sugar-free version, which is sweetened with artificial sweeteners instead.
That being said, plain water or sparkling water are much healthier choices if you’re thirsty.
13. Pre-Made Soup
Soup isn’t a food that you generally associate with sugar. When it’s made with fresh whole ingredients, it’s a healthy choice and can be a great way to increase your vegetable consumption without much effort.
The vegetables in soups have naturally occurring sugars, which are fine to eat given that they usually come in small amounts and with lots of other beneficial nutrients.
However, many commercially prepared soups have a lot of added ingredients, including sugar. To check for added sugars in your soup, look at the ingredients list for things like sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, barley malt, dextrose, maltose, and other syrups.
The higher up on the list an ingredient is, the higher its content in the product. Watch out for when manufacturers list small amounts of different sugars, as that’s another sign the product could be high in total sugar.
14. Cereal Bars
For on-the-go breakfasts, cereal bars can seem like a healthy and convenient choice. However, like other “health bars,” cereal bars are often just candy bars in disguise. Many contain very little fiber or protein and are loaded with added sugar.
15. Canned Fruit
All fruit contains natural sugars. However, some canned fruit is peeled and preserved in sugary syrup. This processing strips the fruit of its fiber and adds a lot of unnecessary sugar to what should be a healthy snack.
The canning process can also destroy heat-sensitive vitamin C, although most other nutrients are well preserved. Whole, fresh fruit is best. If you want to eat canned fruit, look for one that has been preserved in juice rather than syrup, which has a slightly lower sugar content.
16. Canned Baked Beans
Baked beans are another savory food that is often surprisingly high in sugar. A cup (254 grams) of regular baked beans contains about 5 teaspoons of sugar (29). If you like baked beans, you can choose low-sugar versions, which contain about half the amount of sugar found in regular baked beans.
17. Bottled Smoothies
Blending fruits with milk or yogurt in the morning to make yourself a smoothie can be a great way to start your day. However, not all smoothies are healthy. Many commercially produced smoothies come in large sizes and can be sweetened with things like fruit juice, ice cream, or syrup, which increases their sugar content.
Some of them contain ridiculously high amounts of calories and sugar, containing over 96 grams, or 24 teaspoons of sugar in a single serving (30). For a healthy smoothie, check the ingredients and make sure you watch your portion size.
18. Breakfast Cereal
Breakfast cereals are a popular, quick, and easy breakfast food. However, the cereal you choose could greatly affect your sugar consumption, especially if you eat it every day. Some breakfast cereals, particularly those marketed to children, have lots of added sugar. Some contain 12 grams, or 3 teaspoons of sugar in a small 30-gram (1-ounce) serving (32, 33).
Check the label and try choosing a cereal that is high in fiber and doesn’t contain added sugar. Or better yet, wake up a few minutes earlier and cook a quick healthy breakfast with high-protein food like eggs. Eating protein for breakfast can help you lose weight.
Added sugars aren’t a necessary nutrient in your diet. Although small amounts are fine, they can cause serious harm if eaten in large amounts on a regular basis. The best way to avoid hidden sugars in your meals is to make them at home so you know exactly what’s in them.
However, if you need to buy prepackaged food, make sure you check the label to identify any hidden added sugars, especially when buying foods from this list.