By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D. , January 26, 2012 - 10:54am
Most of us eat too much sugar. On average, Americans consume 475 calories of added sugars EVERY DAY (that’s 30 teaspoons). Compare this with the American Heart Association’s recommendation that American women limit their added sugars to no more than 100 calories (or 6 teaspoons) of added sugars per day and men consume no more than 150 calories (9 teaspoons) daily.
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If you’re trying to cut back on added sugars in your diet, you’ve probably already tackled the obvious sources. Sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks, energy and sports drinks along with fruit drinks account for almost half of Americans’ added-sugars consumption. Desserts like cakes, cookies, pies and doughnuts as well as ice cream and frozen yogurt are among the top sources of added sugars in our diets too.
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But what about the less-obvious sources of added sugars? Where do they come from and how can you cut back? It’s difficult to know how much added sugars are in most processed foods because food manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the amount in their products on the Nutrition Facts Panel. But, unless there is fruit and/or milk (which contain naturally occurring sugars, fructose and lactose, respectively) in the product, you can safely assume the amount of sugar listed on the label is added.
Here are a few healthy foods that may have added sugars lurking in them.
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Tomato-based pasta sauces
One leading brand of sauce delivers 15 grams of sugar (almost 4 teaspoons) per ½-cup serving—and in reality, most of us eat closer to a cup of sauce with our pasta. The same brand lists sugar as the third ingredient after tomato puree and tomato juice. I’m not advocating cutting tomato sauce from your diet, though: it counts as a vegetable serving and is packed with lycopene, a potent antioxidant associated with lower risk of prostate and breast cancers. Look for a sauce where any type of sugar (corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, etc.) is either not listed at all or is near the end of the ingredient list. One lower-sugar choice is Mario Batali’s Tomato Basil Sauce, which has 3 grams of sugar per ½ cup (only 12 calories or ¾ teaspoon).
Fat-free salad dressings
Fat-free salad dressings are often laden with sugar because, in order to eliminate the fat but keep some flavor, manufacturers rely primarily on sugar and salt. As a result, the calories in fat-free salad dressings come almost exclusively from sugars like honey and concentrated fruit juice. Sometimes there’s as much as 8 grams of sugar (2 teaspoons) per 2 tablespoons of dressing. I recommend ditching fat-free dressings altogether and going with a dressing that lists canola or olive oil as the top ingredient and (as with tomato sauce) has either no or very little added sugar. These fat-containing dressings have more calories but they’re worth it because canola and olive oils are heart-healthy fats that help lower LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol). Use all dressings in moderation, though, because their calories add up quickly.
Smoothies might seem like a great way to add fruit and dairy to your diet. But most commercially prepared smoothies have added sugars lurking in them. One major brand boasts 38 grams of sugar (9½ teaspoons) and 230 calories in a single-serving bottle. Granted some of these sugars come from the naturally occurring lactose in the low-fat milk and the fructose in the blueberry juice, but sugar is also the second ingredient listed after milk. I’d rather make my own with a cup of skim milk (80 calories) or plain nonfat yogurt (110 calories), ½ cup of blueberries (45 calories) and a teaspoon of maple syrup (16 calories) instead of opting for a sugar-laden drink disguised as a healthy beverage.
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You should always use barbecue sauce sparingly: just enough to add some flavor. But some are healthier than others: one popular brand of barbecue sauce has 12 grams of sugar (3 teaspoons) in only 2 tablespoons. With high-fructose corn syrup listed as the second ingredient (after tomato puree) and molasses the third, sugars account for 80 percent of the calories in this sauce. Fortunately, there are other brands—such as Dinosaur Bar-B-Que Sauce—with half the sugar (and half the calories). Or you can make you own so you can control the amount of sugar you add.
Multi-grain cereals and crackers
Multi-grain crackers and cereals can be good for you—often delivering a healthy dose of whole grains and fiber while also being low in fat. The plain versions of shredded-wheat cereals have no added sugars, but beyond that you should check the ingredient list. One leading brand of multi-grain cereal has 6 grams of sugar per 1 cup serving (1½ teaspoons)—and sugar is listed as the third ingredient with a second source of sugar further down the list. I suggest sticking with the plain versions of the cereal and adding fruit or just a teaspoon of sugar for sweetness. Multi- and whole-grain crackers can also harbor lots of sugar: two very popular whole-grain crackers contain three sources of sugar that add up to 4 grams of sugar (1 teaspoon) in every serving. Other brands, however, like Triscuits and Kashi Original Whole Grain Crackers, contain only whole-grain wheat, oil and salt.
How do you limit the added sugars in your diet? Tell us what you think below.