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Hidden Sources of Sugar

Rachel O'Reilly

Here’s the bitter truth: sugar has no nutrients. And even though many of us think we don’t eat much sugar, upon closer look, we may be eating far more than our recommended daily value.

Many people are shocked to learn where sugar really hides. Some of the most unassuming foods, like salad dressings, meats or “healthy” bars are laced with added sugar. Additionally, sugar is often listed under unrecognizable names, like dextrose for instance, or added in just the right amount per serving so that it’s not listed on food labels.

Why Am I so Addicted to Sugar?

As humans we are naturally hard-wired to seek and enjoy sugar. Biologically, sweet tastes trigger “feel good” chemicals like dopamine and endorphins, which make us feel fantastic and want more sweet things.

This innate love for sugar was once critical for our survival. Long ago when we were hunters and gatherers, our lifestyles were active and we needed the dense calories found in sugar. The taste of sweet was also an indicator of something to be non poisonous. Back then, sugar was scarce, and the wild fruits that contained sugar were much smaller and less sweet than our fruits today.

Sugar’s Impact on the Body

Refined white sugar has no redeeming health benefits, period. A simple google search for “sugar health risks” will pull up plenty of articles on this, but below are some of the main points. Personally, the main reason I do my best to steer clear of sugar is for my daily sanity. I find that once I start eating sugar, all I can think about are other sweet foods. Then I’m dealing with cravings, like a nagging monkey on my back, constantly clamoring for my next sugar fix!

Too much sugar …

  • is damaging to the liver, the main organ used for detoxification

  • can be de-stabilizing to hormones like insulin and leptin which are important for healthy metabolism and weight

  • causes an unhealthy balance of gut flora

  • is pro-inflammatory

  • is associated with common health problems including type II diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension

  • can cause negative psychological responses, stimulating the reward/pleasure part of our brain that makes us want more sweets, leading to cravings and unhealthy habits with food

Be a Sugar Detective

It’s pretty obvious that sugar is found in foods like pastries, cereals, and beverages, but some of the less common foods with added sugar include:

  • salad dressings

  • ketchup and BBQ sauce

  • gum

  • canned soups

  • nut butters

  • yogurt

  • dried fruit

  • “healthy” bars and granola bars

  • granola

  • sausages

  • beef jerky

  • tomato sauce

  • many fat-free processed foods

The best thing to do when looking for sugar in a food product is to go straight to the ingredients list. Forget what it says on the packaging and nutrition label. Even foods that say “0g of sugar" in the nutrition label can contain sugar, and in many cases, the per serving amount is much less than what is typically consumed. When reading ingredient lists, look for:

Typical sugar words: cane sugar, brown sugar, beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, rice syrup, agave nectar

Other words that mean sugar: fruit juice concentrate, corn sweetener, maltodextrin, evaporated cane juice/syrup

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols come from plant derivatives and typically have fewer calories than table sugar, or sucrose. Many foods labeled “sugar-free” have these alcohols. In some cases, they have fewer calories simply because the body can’t absorb them and they often have a laxative effect. However, these sugar alcohols have the same effect on the body as regular sugar: 

  • sorbitol

  • xylitol

  • mannitol

  • ribitol

  • arabitol

  • glycerol/glycerin

  • isomalt

  • maltitol

Words ending in -ose:

  • fructose

  • ribose

  • sucrose

  • dextrose

  • lactose

  • maltose

What About Fruit?

The main problem with sugar is really added sugar, artificial sweeteners, or refined white sugar - not sugar naturally occurring in whole foods like fruits. Fruits do indeed contain sugar; however, they also contain other vitamins and minerals, and most importantly fiber. Fiber slows down the release of sugar into the bloodstream, and also makes us physically full, preventing us from eating too much. Sugar, naturally occuring in food the way Mother Nature made it, is not something to be concerned about the way man-made, refined sugars are.

You may be thinking, “Oh great, sugar’s in everything! How am I supposed to stay away from it?” Once you develop the awareness about what ingredients, like sugar, are in your foods, you can make informed decisions for yourself and your family. You can look twice at your child’s snacks, or stay mindful of sweet cravings by asking yourself if you’ve had other sweet things the previous couple days. The reality is, it’s really hard to go 100% sugar free all of the time in this fast-paced, modern world, and it’s up to you to determine how much sugar is okay in your diet. This will depend on your current health condition, as well as how much time, energy, and resources you have to make your own food or buy the more natural options. If making a sugar-free marinade from scratch feels completely out of your range of possibilities, then by all means buy a pre-made one so that you can feed your family a delicious dinner! Or maybe instead of using artificial sweeteners, like Splenda or Equal, try using natural ones like honey, maple syrup or dates. Stay mindful and informed, and do the best you can!