Why does something that tastes so good have to be so bad for us? That's right, I'm talking about added sugar. It has been called the "single worst ingredient in the modern diet," and too much sugar has been linked to obesity and heart disease, among other health problems. Unsurprisingly, added sugar offers us absolutely zero health benefits, and while everything in moderation is certainly the key here, you might be surprised to learn what 'moderation' actually means when it comes to sugar.
According to the American Heart Association, women should consume no more than 24 grams of added sugar daily, and men no more than 36 grams. To put this in perspective, one standard-sized Snicker's bar contains 27 grams of sugar and one (12-ounce) can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams. Though one would expect to find excessive amounts of sugar in junk food, unfortunately added sugars are often lurking in many of our everyday staple foods--unbeknownst to the consumer.
Before we get into it, let's nail down a few pieces of necessary information you need to know about sugar and your diet:
#1. There is a real difference between added sugar--sugar that's added to food during processing to sweeten and/or preserve the item for a longer shelf life--and natural sugar, which is naturally present in dairy, fruits, and, yes, even vegetables.
#2. While there's no official limit on consumption of naturally-occurring sugar, it's important to keep it in check as an important part of maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
#3. Oftentimes, the value for sugar on food labels can be confusing because it only tells you total sugar, and does not indicate what percentage of the total comes from added sugar versus natural. Natural sugars impact blood glucose levels differently than added sugars. The best way to determine whether a food item has a significant presence of added sugars is to look at the ingredient list and see what sugar sources are in the item.
#4. Sugar disguises itself in many different forms, so it's important to familiarize yourself with its many names if you're trying to cut back. Here's a helpful list from ThatSugarFilm.com containing more than 60 terms for added sugar that you'll find on food labels.
Now that we've covered the basics, here are some of the most common foods that contain notably high amounts of added sugar:
#1. Flavored Yogurt
If you think yogurt is synonymous for "healthy," you may want to check the label of your favorite store-bought brand. Some of the most popular yogurts on the shelves right now--think Yoplait, Dannon, and Stonyfield--pack between 25-29 grams of sugar per a 6 or 8-ounce serving. Instead of that strawberry or blueberry-flavored syrupy stuff, we recommend plain Greek yogurt, such as Fage 2%, which has only 8 grams of sugar per single-serving (7-ounce) container.
#2. Cereals/Granola Bars
While we're on the subject of breakfast, packaged cereals, granola, and granola bars are a common pitfall for added sugars. A safe place to stay is between 5-10 grams of sugar for one serving--so if the sugar values for your favorite bars and bowls are higher than that, you may want to reach for another brand. I would also recommend making your own granola and whole-grain snack bars at home so that you can control exactly what goes into it.
Pre-made, bottled smoothies can contain as much as 58 grams of sugar in a single, 16-ounce container. If you're making your own at home, ordering at the juice bar, or grabbing a bottle at the supermarket, avoid ingredients like sugar-laden fruit juices, frozen yogurt, ice cream, and sherbet. If possible, try to stick to a ratio of 70% veggies to 30% fruit.
#4. Dried fruits
To make dried fruit more appealing to the consumer, some products are candied--i.e. coated in sugar before the drying process. Before purchasing what you think is a 'healthy' product, you should always check the label for added sugar. However, even without the added sugar, dried fruit in general is tricky subject. To make the sweet snack, all of the water is removed in the dehydrating process, which concentrates the fruit's natural sugar into a much smaller package. Because of this, serving sizes for dried fruit are a fraction of the size of the fresh fruit, so you don't want to overindulge even on the 'good' stuff.
#5. Sports drinks
Some sports drink can contain as much as 34 grams of added sugar, and the exact thing you don't need after a workout is a rush of glucose to jolt your insulin levels--which could, in turn, trigger your body to hold onto existing fat stores and confuse your insulin response over the long run. Not exactly the goal of a workout, huh? Water, paired with fruit, is a much better choice for rehydration and calorie replenishment after (or during) exercise.