If you’re trying to lose weight, the world of nutrition can be difficult to maneuvre. Are “low-calorie” options better? Should you be eating “low-fat”? Anything with the word “organic” on it must be a healthier option, right? Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.
Perhaps one of the most common mistakes I see people making are eating “healthy” snacks that are full of hidden sugar (I’m talking mutiple teaspoons), thereby sabotaging their weight loss efforts. Every client food diary I’m come across till date includes one of the foods that I’ll be discussing below.
Before diving right into the most common food sources of hidden sugar, let’s briefly take a look at why it’s a problem in the first place.
Why Hidden Sugar In Foods Is a Problem
The word ‘hidden’ here is what is problematic – if you think [insert fake healthy product] is a healthy choice…what’s likely to happen? You’re going to buy more of it, maybe give it to your kids, pack it as your go-to snack or meal option, and feel pretty damn proud of yourself for being so healthy.
Despite these good intentions, you won’t see the weight loss results you’re looking for, and this will inevitably lead to feeling disenchanted, demotivated and helpless.
For example, I had a colleague who used to think blueberry Greek yogurt was a healthy snacking option – until she realized many months (and potentially pounds) later, that one serving had 21 grams (5 teaspoons) of sugar in it. Yikes!
Of course, there’s more issues with sugar beyond just weight gain:
If you’re someone who feelings hungry (or hangry) all the time, take a look at your sugar intake. Eating foods high in hidden sugars can create a blood sugar rollercoaster. A spike in blood sugar levels will always be followed by a crash, which signals to the brain that it needs food again.
What’s more, research has confirmed that we can become addicted to sugar, in a manner similar to drugs, because of the dopamine rush we receive from eating sweet food. (1)
Ever wonder why junk-food loving teenagers are so prone to pimples? A high intake of hidden sugars leads to excess insulin secretion (the hormone that moves glucose from your blood into your cells). Unfortunately this also increases levels of DHT, a sex hormone that is known to increase sebum production, the oily matter that is the root cause of acne. In fact, one researchers has also given acne the term, skin diabetes (1)
A continuous oversecretion of insulin will eventually lead to insulin resistance; this is when cells stop responding to insulin, which is trying to move glucose from the blood into the cells. Since the brain thinks it isn’t getting enough glucose, it will tell the stress hormones to secrete more glucose.
The longer this viscious cycle continues, the more exhausted the adrenal glands will become and the more tired you will feel all the time.
Ever wanted to nap right after a carb-heavy meal? Known as the ‘sugar hangover’, this is when you come crashing back down after a sugar high. What’s happening behind the scenes is this: insulin is secreted in response to the surge in suger intake, it quickly gets rid of all the excess sugar, creating a mildly hypoglycemic (or low blood sugar) state, which creates brain fog.
The majority of yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of the fungus known as Candida Albicans. Guess what fungus loves to feed on to rapidly grow and multiply? You guessed, it good ol’ sugar and refined carbs.
Ladies, if yeast infections aren’t enough motivation to start cutting back on hidden sugar, you can read about the impact it has on period cramps and PMS symptoms as well.
8 Hidden Sugar Foods To Avoid
While there’s many culprits lurking at the grocery store, these are the most popular ones that are still surrounded by misinformation. Pro tip: 4 grams of sugar is equivalent to 1 tsp of added sugar, so always make sure to read nutrition labels and do a quick conversion.
- Why: Whether it’s organic, Greek, balkan…doesn’t matter. If it’s flavoured or has a ‘fruit bottom’, you’re pretty much just eating fruity syrup.
- Example: Activia strawberry yogurt (13 grams or 3 teaspoons, per 4 oz. serving)
- Example: Liberte blueberry Greek yogurt (21 grams or 5 teaspoons, per 3/4 cup serving)
- Swap: plain yogurt (dairy, goat, sheep, coconut) topped (or blended) with fresh fruit
- Why: Fat brings all the flavour and creaminess to a product, so when you remove it you’re taking away from the taste appeal. That is, unless you make up for the lack of taste with lots of sugar to make it taste better! Low-fat products are not only less satiating, they induce even more cravings because of the high added sugar content.
- Example: Beatrice skim milk (13 grams or 3 teaspoons, per cup)
- Example: Chapman’s low-fat vanilla frozen yogurt (14 grams or 3 teaspoons, per 1/2 cup)
- Swap: just have regular full-fat products. You’ll be more satisfied, eat less and have fewer cravings.
- Why: Fruits are healthy in their whole form i.e. as an actual fruit, becuase they have a high fibre content which slows down the release of sugar into the bloodstream. Fruit juice has no fibre but all the sugar, which spikes blood sugar levels quickly. Processed fruit juice in a carton is even worse, as it typically includes added sugar and artificial flavours.
- Example: Tropicana pure premium orange juice (23 grams or 5.5 teaspoons of sugar, per cup)
- Example: Minute Maid apple juice (32 grams or 8 teaspoons of sugar, per 10 oz. bottle)
- Swap: if you’re craving fruit, just eat the real thing. If you’re craving a fruit smoothie, try to mix in some protein powder and good fats to slow down the release of sugar in your bloodstream.
Granola (including bars)
- Why: What is granola when you boil it down to the ingredients? Clusters of rolled oats or wheat, dried fruit and a sweet syrup baked together. No bueno.
- Example: Nature’s Path Vanilla Almond Flax Granola (10 grams or 2.5 teaspoons per 3/4 cup)
- Swap: All store-bought granola (whether organic, gluten-free etc.) is going to be high in sugar. If you can’t live without granola, try making your own to control the amount of sugar or dried fruit you add in. I like this low-carb one and simply omit the dried cranberries.
Snack Bars (Energy, Protein)
- Why: I think most people forget the purpose of an energy bar, which is to eat before a high intensity workout such as a hike or run. Eaten as a regular snack as part of a sedentary lifestyle, the high sugar content (whether added or natural) is going to go straight to your butt. Protein bars are typically lower in sugar, but some can be surprisingly just as much as a candy bar.
- Example: Cliff Bar (23 grams or approx. 6 teaspoons per bar)
- Swap: Simply eat fruit instead of an energy bar, and opt for a protein shake instead of a bar if you’re looking for a snack. If you do want to indulge in snack bars from time to time, here’s what I like: for energy bars, Larabar or Nakd bars since they only contain a 2-4 ingredients and use whole foods as a sweetener. That being said, I view them as a treat or something to have before exercise. When it comes to protein bars, I like Kirkland or Quest bars since they have around 1 gram of sugar and have higher quality ingredients. You can try these options if you can handle whey protein. Vega protein and Boku bars are also good vegan options as the sugar and protein content are quite evenly matched.
- Why: most cereal consists of refined grain, sugar, and a mixture of artificial flavors and preservatives. Top it off with skim milk and you’ve got yourself dessert! Basically, cereal is just refined carbohydrates and sugar, without any good fat, protein and minimal fibre to help balance your blood sugar levels.
- Example: Special K Red Berries (9 grams or 2 teaspoons of sugar, per cup)
- Example: Harvest Crunch original (10 grams or 2.5 teaspoons of sugar, per 2/3 cup)
- Swap: if you’re going to eat cereal, opt for brands that have little to no sugar. For example, plain Cheerios contain just 1 gram per cup. That being said, with or without sugar, there’s limited nutrition in cereal and it will still spike blood sugar levels. Opt for a high protein and fat breakast like a Greek yogurt partfait or steel cut oatmeal with berries, nuts and seeds, eggs, or protein shake.
- Why: fresh, homemade condiments can be extremely healthy; all you need are a handful of ingredients along with some spices. Commercial condiments on the other hand, sugar as ketchup or salad dressings, are high in sugar to get maximum taste for the lowest price.
- Example: Heinz ketchup (4 grams or 1 teaspoon sugar, per tablespoon)
- Example: Kraft Thousand Island dressing (
- Swap: just make them at home, they’re really not that hard! Try this homemade ketchup recipe or check out this beginner’s recipe guide for salad dressings.
- Why: since this falls under the ‘fruit’ category, many people assume it’s a healthy topping for a parfait, oatmeal or salad. Unfortunately the commercial drying process diminishes nutrient density, and often more sugar is added in. People also forget that the’re eating an entire fruit and end up eating 5 or 6 times more than the regular version e.g. eating 5-6 dried apricots vs. the one you typically would!
- Example: dried cranberries (26 grams or 6.5 teaspoons of sugar, per 1/3 cup)
- Example: dried raisins (49 grams or 12 teaspoons of sugar, per 1/2 cup)
- Swap: if you’re looking for a sweet topping for your breakfast, just opt for fruit. And if you want someting more chewy or textured, try nuts, seeds and lower sugar superfoods such as white mulberries.
How to Avoid Hidden Sugar In Foods
If you simply read the nutrition label and look at the grams of sugar listed on there, you’re 90% of the way there! But what if it shows ’20 grams of sugar’ with sugar nowhere to be found on the ingredients label? Well dear reader, this is because there’s many names for sugar now. Make sure you’re aware of thel ist below so you don’t get tricked or so that you know how to avoid sugar if the nutrition label isn’t ever available.
Other names for sugar
- Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup
- Evaporated cane juice or fruit juice
- Raw or turbinado sugar
- Rice syrup
- Fruit nectar
Also avoid these ‘trigger words’ on packaging
Lastly, check out these posts for further reading on cutting back sugar
- The best natural sweetners to use + what to avoid
- How to make a smoothie that won’t lead to weight gain
- How to select healthy bread at the grocery store
(1) Avena, N., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. (2017). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake.
(2) Kader MM, El-Mofty AM, Ismail AA, Bassili F. Glucose tolerance in blood and skin of patients with acne vulgaris. Indian Journal of Dermatology 1977;22:139-149.