Because most packaged foods contain some kind of added sugar, the sweet stuff is nearly impossible to avoid.
In the short term, sugary foods can send you on an energy roller coaster that ultimately leaves you feeling sluggish and starving. Over time, a chronically high-sugar diet can trigger inflammation and related health issues ranging from weight gain to heart disease, dementia, diabetes, and cancer. It’s why the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends eating no more than 10 percent of your daily calories (i.e., 12 teaspoons or 48 grams of sugar) from added sugar each day.
But “sugar itself isn’t an inherent evil,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, a San Diego-based registered dietitian and the author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet. Wholesome foods that contain natural sugars often contain vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients (like protein and fiber) too. Those foods, while sweet, nourish your body and provide sustainable fuel.
The real problem comes when you eat those naturally sweet foods and overindulge in foods made with added sugars (like corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and white table sugar). And candy’s not the only culprit. Look out for added sugars in these seemingly healthy foods, which have even more sugar than some kinds of candy:
1. Enriched Waters
Fruit-flavored Vitamin Water (31 grams of sugar), some coconut waters (about 12 grams of sugar), and Gatorade (21 grams of sugar) may sound like better choices than soda (39 grams in a can of Coca Cola) when water doesn’t cut it. Even though some drinks contain added vitamins, they don’t contain the fiber found in real fruit and other foods, so they fill you up with calories that don’t keep you full.
2. Cereal With Milk
It’s no surprise that almost every cereal that tastes good is loaded with added sugars. (It’s why you don’t eat Lucky Charms — which contain 10 grams of sugar per 3/4 cup serving — three meals a day.) What’s more surprising: Plain milk contains sugar. Granted, it’s naturally occurring sugar (i.e., healthier than the refined stuff you find in candy), and packaged with the protein and nutrients found in milk, so it’s the sugar you shouldn’t cut out. Rather, opt for cereals with few or no added sugars for a lower-sugar breakfast, and just keep milk in mind if you’re calculating your total sugar consumption.
3. Fat-Free Flavored Yogurt
4. Tomato Soup
In an ideal world, tomato soup should be made of stewed tomatoes that are sweet enough to slurp. But some recipes (like Amy’s Organic Vegan Low-Fat Chunky Tomato Bisque) contain added sugars to enhance the flavor of tomatoes that aren’t up to par. (The same goes for tomato sauce.) Avoid soups that list “sugar” as an ingredient, and consider broth-based options flavored with wholesome ingredients, spices, and herbs.
5. Dried Fruit
Of course fruit contains some natural sugars — NBD. But when you dry fresh fruit, you lose the water, which concentrates the sugar and makes every bite sweeter — with more sugar than marshmallows, cup for cup. This absolutely does not mean that marshmallows are healthier than raisins, as dried fruit still contains more fiber and nutrients than straight-up candy. The point is that fresh fruit is best.
6. Granola Bar
Most people eat granola bars because they’re convenient and healthier than candy bars. (Or so you’d think.) But even healthy-sounding bars (i.e., the ones made without chocolate) can contain lots of added sugars. Look for ones sweetened with fruit or honey — not corn syrup or cane sugar — and fewer than 10 grams of sugar (the less the better!).
7. Soy Milk
8. Tonic Water
While soda water and tonic water are both clear and make tasty mixers, tonic is actually more similar to regular soda: It’s loaded with sugar. Instead of ordering a vodka-tonic, you’re better off with a vodka-orange juice: OJ has slightly less sugar (22 grams of sugar per cup) and gets extra credit for its vitamin C.
9. Green Juice
The sugars in this green juice come from its main ingredients: fruits and fruit juices. But 53 grams of sugar (270 calories!) is an awful lot to suck through a straw. Instead, go for a green juice that contains veggies as the first ingredients, or opt for water and a salad. Your brain will register it as a meal, unlike the same amount of liquid calories.
10. Instant Oatmeal
Opt for brown sugar and maple syrup oatmeal, and you should know what you’re getting: breakfast for dessert. Instant oatmeal made flavored with apples and cinnamon sounds a whole lot better. Unfortunately, fruit-flavored options have just as much sugar as obviously sweetened varieties — even more than oatmeal with chocolate chips (8 grams). Your best bet is unflavored oatmeal (zero sugar!) with fresh mix-ins (like berries, which tend to contain less sugar than other fruits).