We’ve all heard it before: Americans consume too much of the sweet stuff. Some sugars, like the ones naturally found in wholesome foods like fruit and milk, aren’t the kinds you need to be overly concerned with. But much of the sugar in the average American’s diet isn’t coming from pears and one percent. The sweet stuff we’re consuming is the added variety—defined as any type of sweetener not attached to its original source—and it’s sneaking into our diets using processed food as its primary vehicle. The worst part is, these added sugars aren’t just lurking in obvious places like cookies and snack cakes, they’re also hiding in unassuming groceries like lunch meats and breads. (Yes, even the wholesome-sounding, whole-grain varieties, too.) With sugar found in just about everything, it’s no surprise that health experts want us to make an effort to cut back—but the food landscape is making that a pretty tough feat. For some perspective, health experts continue to recommend that no more than five percent of our daily calories come from added sugar, while the average American currently downs three times that amount.
Although it may seem difficult to follow these recommendations, don’t be tempted to just throw in the towel. There are ways to escape the sugar rush—and the benefits of doing so are vast. Not only can it help you lose weight, it can also help ward off conditions like high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, which increase the risk of other issues like heart attack and stroke. In short, cutting back on the sweet stuff may just extend your life, which is a great reason to make a solid effort! To help you out, we've collected some simple yet effective strategies for outsmarting that sneaky added sugar—think of them as tools in your better-body, disease-fighting arsenal. Click through the slides to see what they are.
Convert Sugar Grams to Teaspoons
When you see “30 grams of sugar” printed on your yogurt’s nutrition label, the information is a bit abstract—especially since there’s no daily recommended value of the nutrient running alongside of it. The trick to understanding how much of the sweet stuff is really in your food is to convert the sugar in grams to tablespoons—a measurement that’s easier to visualize. If math isn't your forte, fear not! The equation is a simple one: All you need to do it divide the total grams of sugar by four. That means if your yogurt label says 30 grams of sugar, seven and a half teaspoons of the sweet stuff are lurking in its tiny container—far more than The World Health Organization recommendation of six teaspoons–per day! Rather than blowing a day’s worth of sugar before noon, wouldn’t you rather indulge in some dessert? We know we would! A small square of Ghirardelli Intense Dark Midnight Reverie has a mere 1.3 grams or .32 tablespoons of sugar and tastes a heck of a lot better than a “fruit on the bottom” yogurt.
Don’t Get Punk'd by the Ingredient List
When you’re scanning a product’s ingredient list at the supermarket, you may think you’re making a healthy pick if you don’t see “sugar” printed on the packaging, but the sweet stuff is super deceptive and likes to go by nearly 60 different names—many of which sound like they aren’t so bad for you. Take honey, sucrose, rice syrup and cane sugar for example. They may sound a healthier than plain old sugar, but at the end of the day, they are all the same and should be eaten in moderation.
Another thing to consider is how many added sugars are in your food and where they each fall on the ingredient list. If an ingredient is printed toward the end of the listing it indicates that less of it is was used to make the food than the ingredients listed before it. However, if there are five different types of sugar in your treat all listed toward the end of the list, the sum of all of them combined may be so high that sugar should really be listed as the first ingredient on the panel. The best way to ensure a food is healthy pick is to avoid products that contain more than two added sugars. Both of those sugars should also fall toward the end of the ingredient list.
Don’t Rely on Your Taste Buds
Believe it or not, even processed foods that don’t taste sweet contain sugar—sometimes a ton of it, too! Some of the worst unsuspecting offenders include bread, deli meat, salad dressing, tomato sauce, teriyaki sauce and frozen dinners. Ketchup is another condiment not to be trusted. “Just one measly tablespoon has up to four grams of sugar …. [and the] average consumer will douse their food with at least four or five [servings],” says Lisa Moskovitz, R.D., founder of The NY Nutrition Group. The bottom line: Don’t let your taste buds lead you astray. Check the nutrition panel before putting fork to mouth—even if you don’t think your food contains the sweet stuff.
Avoid “Natural” Sweeteners
Yes, things like cane juice, organic brown rice syrup and honey sound healthier than plain old sugar, but don’t believe the hype. Natural sources of sugar are still sugars, and the body can’t distinguish between the white variety and the types that are marketed to sound less detrimental. Experts agree: Although sweeteners like agave are gaining popularity in health-minded circles, it’s not at all better than sugar and should be used sparingly like any other sweetener, explains Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, an Atlanta based registered dietitian nutritionist and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In fact, agave may be more detrimental to our health than cane sugar because of its high levels of fructose. A recent study found that added forms of fructose are fueling the type 2 diabetes epidemic more so than other sugar or carb.
Avoid “Sugar-Free” Foods
Due to a legislative loophole, "sugar-free" can be slapped on foods that contain less than 0.5 grams sugar per serving, explains Toby Amidor, M.S., R.D., President and Founder of Toby Amidor Nutrition. Take Sugar Free Oreos for example: although most of their sweetness comes from alternate sources of sugar like sugar alcohols and substitutes, they also have added sugar. Even so, Nabisco can get away with marketing the cookies as sugar-free because they have less than 0.5 grams per serving. Although that’s not a ton of the sweet stuff, a little bit here and there can sneak up on you—especially when it’s coming from foods that you assume don’t have sugar. The bottom line: Don’t munch of these foods guilt-free, chasing a sugar high. Instead, stick to a full-sugar treat, really savor the taste and cut yourself off after one small serving.