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Marketers of faux-health foods aren’t dumb, but they hope you are—today we’re taking aim at surprisingly sugary foods like pre-made salads, pasta sauce, and more.
Normally, we’re content to bounce around new and/or controversial theories on nutritional concepts all day, but every so often, we have the luxury of seeing in black and white.
Foods that contain added sugars are a perfect example; even the most “fringe” of nutritional theorists are hard-pressed to build a supporting case in most instances.
Rather than explain what you likely already know about the potentially deadly pitfalls of added sugar consumption, consider this your first actionable step in making a change—knowing what to avoid and what to modify.
We’ve analyzed each item in this watch list of sneakily sugary foods for its sugar content and redeeming nutritional value, if any.
Sweetened Beverages: Juice, Pop, Sports Drinks, and Smoothies
It may seem unfair to lump health smoothies in with the pop and juice, but restaurant-prepared smoothies especially can contain up to a dizzying 60 grams of added sugar.
To provide some context, a 12-oz can of Coke has approximately 40 grams of added sugar, which is about the same as a 16-ounce sports drink.
According to the American Heart Association, “beverages are the leading category source of added sugars,” representing 47% of all foods that commonly contain added sugars.
The AHA also sets recommended daily limits of sugar at 36 grams for men and 25 grams for women.
This is as good a place as any to make a key distinction: Sugar derived naturally from fibrous, nutritionally dense sources of complex carbs like fruits, vegetables, and some grains is essential.
For this reason, many justify the sugar content of fruit smoothies as healthfully sourced, to which we reply, “What about the other 40 grams?”
That said, fruit smoothies (and nothing else from this category) are redeemable if they’re home-made with vegetables, unsweetened almond milk, and no added sugars, including honey.
The nutritional gap between old-school, unflavored, steel-cut oats and flavored instant oatmeal is pretty sizable.
On the one hand, major brands like Quaker use the same kind of generally healthy, fiber-rich oats for instant and original varieties (instant oats are just cut into smaller pieces), but the flavoring is where they get you.
A single packet of flavored instant oatmeal—let’s be honest, nobody has just one—packs upwards of 12 grams of added sugar.
Even though that’s not a chart-topper in terms of sheer quantity, the other issue here is the high glycemic value of instant oatmeal.
The glycemic index (GI) is a 100-point scale that indicates how quickly a food item will spike your blood sugar.
Regular oatmeal is scored at just over 50 points, which is so-so, but instant oatmeal ratchets this number up to the 80s.
In other words, the added sugar and the more thinly cut oats allow instant oatmeal to be metabolized into sugar very quickly, which is bad news for your pancreas.
Still, this breakfast staple is technically redeemable in that you can simply choose regular oatmeal and add your own fruit, which will minimize added sugars while dropping the glycemic value.
Yogurt is an optimal sugar medium for brands looking to keep their customer bases hooked on that sultry, saccharine goodness without raising their suspicions.
After all, Greek yogurt brands especially have all kinds of positive nutrition claims they can slap onto labels, like probiotic-rich, high in calcium, and more.
Yogurt is indeed a nutritious food, but a nutritious food with a dark secret: sugar.
A piece on this very topic by NPR reports that even organic brands of flavored yogurt can climb to an egregious 17 grams of sugar per 100-gram serving.
Alas, redemption is possible for the label-weary minority of Americans who opt for unflavored, strained varieties like Fage, which has 5g of sugar per serving, none of which is added sugar.
As a widely lauded staple of a healthy diet, the salad provides even better camouflage for various iterations of sugary glop.
The bastardization of balsamic vinegar into a mass-manufactured condiment has turned what was once a healthy, virtually sugar-free food into a dressing that packs ten or more grams of sugar per serving.
Fat-free dressings can hover around ten grams of sugar for just an ounce and a half.
Finally, topping your salad with croutons, candied pecans, or even dried fruit can jack up sugar content, added or otherwise.
Use real spinach, swap out the sugary dressings for extra virgin olive oil and vinegar, ditch or at least cut back on the condiments, and you have one of the healthiest foods you can eat.
Here we encounter a bit of a paradox.
In fairness, many manufacturers do not add sugar to dried fruit.
Added sugar or not, the dehydration process makes everything more concentrated on a nutritional level.
Yes, you can leverage this effect to quickly and conveniently up your intake of a ton of essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, but you’ll also be amping up your sugar intake like no other.
Dried grapes, i.e., raisins, are a prime example, because one of those tiny little boxes (1.5 ounces) packs a walloping 25 grams of sugar.
It’s not inconceivable to think that, throughout the course of a day, a person could easily consume three of those small boxes of raisins between meals, amounting to 75 grams of sugar just for snacks.
There are three ways to reconcile the nutritional power of dried fruit with healthful moderation of sugar:
- Ensure the product doesn’t have any added sugar
- Limit your consumption to stay under fifteen (or even better, ten) grams of sugar
- Have regular fruit instead and fill up faster
Even pasta sauces branded as “reduced fat” or “heart healthy” can sneak up to 25 grams of sugar in each cup—some of it is from the tomatoes, much of it is added.
From a food chemistry perspective, adding sugar to pasta helps to offset the acidity for a more balanced flavor profile.
However, there are a few brands like Riserva and Primal Kitchen that make (expensive) no-sugar-added varieties, which weigh in at 4-5g of sugar per serving because of the tomatoes.
In moderation, sauces from this more nutritionally conscious side of the spectrum can still be worked into a diet without seriously affecting your sugar intake.
The Usual Suspects
Finally, we couldn’t end this tour of sugary foods without paying homage to the greats.
If yogurt and salad are the snappily dressed conmen of the health food industry, these unabashedly sugary foods are a face-tattooed chain gang in full prison regalia:
- Ice cream
Many versions of these foods reach up to 50 or even 60 percent refined sugar content by dry weight, a grim figure not even partially ameliorated by any semblance of nutritional value.
In fairness, everyone needs to “cheat” every once in a while, but just make sure it’s every once in a while.
Know Your Enemy: Recognizing Sugar Aliases
We’ll close with a tip: there are many forms of added sugar, so learn as many as you can and stay vigilant when reading labels.
You’ll always be able to determine how much sugar is in a food by the nutrition information, but knowing how to recognize these forms of sugar in the ingredients list is crucial for dieting and cooking purposes:
- Corn syrup
- Agave nectar
- Corn sweetener
- Evaporated cane juice
- Cane sugar
Notice a trend?
The -ose ending and the word cane are pretty consistent indicators that you’re looking at an added sugar.
Whatever form the sugar takes, if you know what to look for, how much you should limit yourself to, and healthy modifications/substitutions to make like the above, your transition to a healthier consumption level will be a less bitter one.