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6 Hidden Sugar Mines in Your Diet

You may think you're eating healthier, but mounds of sugar lurk in surprising places

By Maureen Callahan | August 31, 2012
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Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the Health.com diet book review series.

With little bits of sweetener lurking in all kinds of unlikely foods — including pizza, bread, peanut butter, soup and cold cuts — we’re becoming, consciously or not, a nation of sugar hounds.

Americans eat, on average, as much as 22 teaspoons of added sugars per day — nearly half a cup. Public health officials are alarmed, and rightly so. This is not a concern for diabetics alone. Diets with excess sugar can raise your cholesterol levels and blood pressure, increase your risk of heart disease and potentially evolve into an addiction that’s hard to shake. Also, some researchers now believe that diets high in sugar are actually toxic to the heart, the liver and one's overall health, a case made most prominently in this recent 60 Minutes segment.

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The American Heart Association recommends that adult women consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugars per day. For men, the limit is nine teaspoons. When scanning food nutrition labels, you can read 4 grams of sugar as equal to about one teaspoon. But be aware that labels typically lump natural sugars (fruit, grains) together with added sugars (corn syrup, sucrose), so check a product's ingredient list closely to get a better sense of the sugar it carries in all its various forms: granulated sugar, brown sugar, molasses, agave nectar, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup, cane syrup and anything else ending in "ose." People can debate the health benefits of honey or natural sweeteners over refined white table sugar, but the bottom line is that to the body, sugar is sugar. And too much is too much. (As for sugar substitutes, they're technically chemicals that mimic the taste of sugar. As with the real stuff, moderation is key.)

Here’s a look at six surprising sources of sugar in your diet, as well as tips on cutting back.

1. Frozen Meals

You may be pleased to discover lower-fat, lighter fare among the meals in your supermarket's frozen food aisle. The problem is, when companies ditch the fat, they often pump up flavor by adding inexpensive sugars instead. In fact, many frozen meals rival candy when it comes to sugar content. Healthy Choice Sweet & Tangy Chicken BBQ, for example, delivers a skinny calorie and fat profile but has nearly as much sugar (29 grams) as a Snickers bar. Lean Cuisine sweetens its Beef Chow Fun with 18 grams (4.5 teaspoons) of brown sugar and brown sugar syrup. That’s more sugar than five strands of red licorice.
 
How to cut the sugar: Scour the aisles for frozen meals that aren't packaged with sugary sauces and desserts. Or, even better, avoid the packaged meals (which also tend to be packed with sodium) altogether. You can still create simple, tasty dishes: Just grab some packs of unadorned frozen vegetables that are easily microwaved and season them with lemon oil and a sprinkle of salt. Then pair the veggies with plain, precooked lean proteins such as shrimp, chicken breast, rotisserie chicken or roast beef. But beware: When those protein sources are packed in broths, sauces or spicy rubs, they may be loaded with salt.
 
2. Salad Dressing

Have you ever sprinkled a couple of teaspoons of sugar over a savory salad of field greens? Probably not. But, as it turns out, you don't have to. Food companies already stir that much sweetener, and more, into vinaigrettes and other salad dressings. A two-tablespoon serving of Kraft Creamy French Salad Dressing, for example, delivers about one-and-a-half teaspoons (6 grams) of sugar. Use a quarter-cup of dressing, and you’re sweetening your salad with a full tablespoon of sugar. Devoted to light or fat-free dressings? Count on finding lots of sugar in those as well. Two tablespoons of Newman’s Own Lite Honey Mustard Dressing has 5 grams of sugar; the same serving of Kraft Fat-Free Catalina has 7 grams, or almost 2 teaspoons.

(MORE: Follow These Guidelines for Healthy Eating)

How to cut the sugar: First, read the labels better and seek out salad dressings with 0 to 2 grams of sugar per serving. Or just buy good quality oils and vinegars and make the easiest, tastiest dressing on the planet: vinaigrette. Here’s a traditional recipe, or you can try this lighter version. You’ll never go back to bottled dressings — or their sweeteners — again.
 
3. Cereals

You already know that Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs and other childhood favorites carry too much sugar for your adult palate (not to mention the kids'). So you’re diligently stocking up on what appear to be healthier cereals filled with whole grains, vitamins and antioxidants. But guess what else they're filled with? Sugar. Kellogg’s Smart Start Strong Heart Toasted Oat Cereal comes complete with nine types of sugar, including corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, honey and sugar. Add them all up, and the cereal carries 5 more grams of sugar per serving than Fruit Loops. Post Great Grains Cranberry Almond Crunch provides all of its promised whole grain — with exactly the same amount of sugar per serving as Fruit Loops. Similar scenarios can be found on nutrition labels up and down the cereal aisle; high-fiber and bran varieties are among the worst offenders.
 
How to cut the sugar: Stick with simple cereals — plain, whole-grain flakes, circles or squares that have four to five grams of sugar, or less, per serving. (Keep in mind, though, that if you have two servings you'll be doubling that sugar intake.) Some options include Post Shredded Wheat or Shredded Wheat ‘n Bran, which has no sugar at all. To make your breakfast bowl sweet, add (in moderation) some raisins or dried cranberries. Or just top your cereal with fresh fruits that are naturally low in sugar, like berries, apples and peaches.
 
4. Pasta Sauce

Italian cooks sometimes add a pinch of sugar to a pot of marinara to soften the natural acidity of tomatoes. But some food companies have turned a pinch into a punch by dropping as much as one or two teaspoons of sugar into each half-cup of their sauces. You can expect about three grams of natural sugar from the tomatoes in each half-cup of marinara. Anything more than that is added sweetener. The Ragu family of pasta sauces, for example, has anywhere from six to 11 grams of sugar per half-cup; Prego provides eight to 10 grams per serving. (Bottled sauces in general are notorious sugar bombs — and that includes barbecue sauce, teriyaki sauce, salsa and cocktail sauce.)
 
How to cut the sugar: Try richly flavored pasta sauces with no added sugar, like Mario Batali Marinara Pasta Sauce or Rao’s Tomato Basil Marinara with Fresh Basil, both available at Wal-Mart. Or make your own version of Batali’s easy recipe using plain canned crushed tomatoes.

5. Flavored Yogurts

Plain, low-fat yogurts are nutritional powerhouses, rich in calcium and high-quality protein. But flavored and "fruit" yogurts contain more sugar than fruit and can negate your healthy goals — they have as much as 16 to 28 grams of sugar (that's four-to-seven teaspoons!) in each serving. Yoplait Boston Cream Pie yogurt, for example, is packed with 26 grams of sugar and Stonyfield Oikos Greek Yogurt with Honey has 17 grams per serving, more than four teaspoons.

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How to cut the sugar: It's simple. Just opt for plain reduced-fat or Greek yogurt and add cut-up fresh fruit or unsweetened frozen fruits. Your sweet tooth may require some time to adjust to the more subtle sweetness, but it's well worth the effort. You can also drizzle your dish with a half-teaspoon of honey or maple syrup. That will add two to three grams of sugar, which is still far less than those flavored yogurts provide, plus you can easily cut back on that as you adjust to the less sweetened stuff.

6. Snack Bars

Nothing beats the convenience of a granola or "fitness" bar for on-the-go snacking. The trouble is, many bars are just as sweet (and almost as nutrient-poor) as candy bars. Like many other products in this group, Nature Valley Sweet & Salty Nut Granola Bars has photos of peanuts, cashews and almonds on its box, and yet three of the first five ingredients on the label are sugars. So it's no surprise that each bar packs three teaspoons of sugar, with just a single gram of fiber, and only three grams of protein. So-called fitness bars, like Luna and Clif Bars, do offer more protein and fiber, but with about 24 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar in each, they’re still hard to justify in a diet that should include only six-to-nine teaspoons of added sugar per day.
 
How to cut the sugar: Stick with bars whose labels show just four to five grams of sugar per serving. But it’s just as easy (and cheaper) to grab a few tablespoons of mixed nuts and an apple, or to carry a single-serve pouch of pistachios and a fresh peach.

In other words, whole foods make the best snacks, and they come from Mother Nature.

How sweet is that?