Sure, you haven’t eaten Lucky Charms for dinner since college, but sugar could still be covertly making its way onto your plate in large amounts—and it could be jeopardizing your health.
First things first: We’re not talking about natural sugars, like those you’ll find in fruit and milk. We’re talking about the refined sugar added to so many foods and drinks, like bottled teas and packaged snacks, these days.
The issue with added sugar? It has no nutritional value, says Angie Asche, M.S, R.D., sports dietitian and owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition. “It does not keep you satiated, does not provide you with any essential vitamins or minerals, and does not contain any fiber, protein, or healthy fats,” she says.
Plus, too much sugar can wreak havoc on your blood sugar and lead to issues like weight gain and diabetes over time, says nutritionist Dara Godfrey, M.S., R.D. (Your body churns out the hormone insulin to control your blood sugar, but eventually your body becomes resistant to it, steering you toward diabetes.)
The World Health Organization recommends limiting added sugars as much as possible, to about five percent of your daily calories, or 25 grams total per day. According to the CDC, the average American consumes more than three times that much sugar every day.
It’s not surprising, considering even condiments and salty foods often pack major sugar. When it’s not just listed as ‘sugar’, the sweet stuff is listed under a number of sneaky names, including evaporated cane juice, rice syrup, maltose, maltodextrin, and high-fructose corn syrup.
Here are some of the unexpected foods sneaking tons of sugar into your daily diet:
1. BBQ Sauce
Before you smother your plate at your next cookout, take a look at the label on that barbecue sauce. Some brands include up to nine grams per tablespoon, often in the form of corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup, according to Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet.
“Instead of using a store-bought barbecue sauce, make your own with a recipe that uses less added sugar,” she says. Or, grill your meat in a sauce made of olive oil, lemon juice, and fresh herbs, or use a no-sugar-added dry meat rub instead.
This beloved condiment staple is another big sugar offender with one tablespoon containing about 3.7 grams of sugar, says Godfrey. (Again, you’ll see high-fructose corn syrup in many brands.) Instead, Godfrey recommends using dry rubs, hot pepper flakes, salsa, or garlic to add flavor to food.
This one’s a real heart-breaker—especially because we have the bad habit of eating a few servings of granola straight from the bag. Some brands of granola contain upwards of 12 grams of sugar per serving in the form of honey, maple syrup, molasses or evaporated cane juice, according to Rachel Begun, M.S., R.D.N. Instead, you can satisfy your sweet tooth by whipping up homemade trail mix with a few types of nuts, seeds, and dried fruits for a DIY snack that’s added sugar-free. Just mix three types of nuts (like walnuts, almonds, peanuts, or pistachios), with two types of seeds (like sunflower or pumpkin seeds), and one or two types of dried fruit (like dried strawberries, pineapple, apples, or raisins), says Begun. Just make sure your dried fruit doesn’t contain any added sugar—fruit is sweet enough as is!
When DIY just isn’t in the cards, look for a trail mix that contains just a few whole ingredients like Sunfoods Superfoods’ Raw Organic Mango Macadamia mix. (It’s only ingredients are mango, macadamia nuts, cashews, goji berries, mulberries, and cacao nibs.)
4. Salad Dressing
You may think that you’re making a healthy choice by grabbing a salad, but what you top it with is ‘make or break it.’ French, Catalina, and raspberry vinaigrette dressings can be especially sugar-loaded, with some popular brands containing five grams of sugar per two-tablespoon serving, says Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E., author of Diabetes Weight Loss-Week by Week. Instead, whisk up your own salad dressing by combining two tablespoons of olive oil, one tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar, and a few seasonings (like salt, pepper, and garlic powder). You could also add some tahini or mashed avocado into the mix for extra creaminess, she says.
5. Rice Vinegar
Rice vinegar, which is commonly added to salads or used to make marinades and sauces, is shockingly high in sugar content, coming in around six grams per tablespoon, says Godfrey. Look for a low-sodium, low-sugar rice vinegar or choose another acid, like lemon juice, to cook with.
A yogurt seems like the perfect quick and easy breakfast. Take note, though, that some yogurts contain more sugars than others, says Gans. On top of that, some flavored varieties contain up to 23 grams of sugar per serving. For a healthier swap, Gans recommends grabbing a plain yogurt and topping it with fresh fruit for sweetness.
Oatmeal is another convenient, tasty breakfast that’s tricking us into consuming a lot of extra sugar. Flavored packets of instant oatmeal, in particular, can contain up to 12 grams of sugar, which is often listed as maltodextrin. Cook up a week’s worth of plain oatmeal in the slow-cooker at the beginning of the week and you’ll have a solid breakfast base waiting for you every morning, Begun says. You can add fresh fruit and/or chopped nuts and seeds to spice up your bowl.
8. Peanut Butter
Say it ain’t so! This pantry staple often contains unnecessary added sugar—often even when the brands tout themselves as ‘natural,’ according to Asche. Often, a two tablespoon of PB serving contains about three grams of sugar. “Again, look at the ingredient list, to assure you’re buying a brand without added sugars,” she says. Luckily, super-clean nut and seed butters are easy to find, with many brands, like Once Again, containing just one or two ingredients (except for their sunflower seed butter, which is lightly sweetened).