5 Tips to Find and Reduce Added Sugar Intake

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If you want to eat less sugar, you’ve got to know where to look. Sugar hides in hundreds of everyday foods.

Trying to eat less sugar is difficult, and not just because we like it so much. Sure, it’s hard to give up something that tastes so good, but what really makes eating less sugar so tough is the fact that it’s nearly impossible to avoid it.

There is so much sugar added to so many foods that the average American adult eats about 22 teaspoons of sugar (350 calories) every single day. That means we’re each eating about 3 pounds of sugar a week, or 150 pounds a year, or nearly 18% of our total calories from sugar alone. Where is all this sugar coming from?

What Is Added Sugar?

Some sugars naturally occur in foods, like lactose (natural milk sugar) or the natural fructose that adds sweetness to fruits. Those aren’t added sugars, they’re just a component of these foods in their natural state.

But added sugars are just what they sound like: they’re sugars that are added to foods during processing, or during preparation or at the table.

When you spread jam on your toast, or sprinkle sugar in your coffee, or when a recipe calls for a sugary ingredient, you’re adding sugar to your food. But it’s the processed foods we eat that dump lots of added sugar into our bodies. As foods are processed, becoming further and further removed from their natural state, a lot of sugar is often added along the way. A small fresh apple has some natural sugar in it, maybe 15 grams or so. But process it into sweetened applesauce and you’ve now got another 15 grams of added sugar per serving. Natural whole wheat has virtually no sugar in it. But process it into sugary cereal flakes and you could be eating a few tablespoons of added sugar in every bowlful.

Sugar in Foods – the Sugar You See

Some added sugars are pretty obvious, like the jams and jellies, table sugar, honey or syrup we put on our foods. Then there’s the 53 gallons of sugary soft drinks that the average American consumes every year. This which accounts for about a third of our total added sugar intake. We also get plenty of sugar from treats like cakes and cookies, candies and frozen desserts. These are the sugars we can see. But nearly a quarter of the sugar we eat is hidden away in processed foods.

Sugar in Foods – the Sugar You Don’t See

Unless you are a fanatic about reading ingredients labels, there’s a good chance that you’re eating sugar you didn’t even know about and in places where you wouldn’t expect to find it. I’ll bet you didn’t think a serving of pasta sauce could harbor nearly 5 teaspoons of sugar, or that 80% of the calories in ketchup come from sugar. Once you start looking at ingredients lists, you’ll find sugar in everything from soups to salad dressings.

 5 Tips for Cutting Your Sugar Intake

  • Read Nutrition Labels. This is really the first step in reducing your sugar intake for a couple reasons. Sugar comes in many forms, so you’ll want to read your ingredients list carefully for words other than just “sugar.” Sucrose, glucose, dextrose, lactose, maltose, brown rice syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltodextrin, corn syrup, molasses are just some of the many forms of sugar added to foods. On the flip side, be aware that those sugars that naturally occur in foods. The lactose in milk and the fructose in fruit, for example, will show up on the nutrition facts panel as “sugar” even though no sugar is added. The nutrition facts panel on a package of frozen, unsweetened strawberries might list 10 grams of sugar per serving, but that’s just the natural fructose in the fruit. Check the ingredients list to be sure, which in this case should just say, “strawberries.”
  • Sweeten foods yourself. Many foods that come pre-sweetened, like cereals, yogurt, salad dressings or ‘alternative’ milks (rice, hemp, soy, etc.), have surprising amounts of sugar. Vanilla flavored rice, hemp or soy milks can have more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar in an 8-ounce (240mL) cup. Some varieties of instant oatmeal have more than a tablespoon of added sugar, which comes in a very tiny packet—and who eats just one? Some single-serve yogurts pack 30 grams (7 ½ teaspoons) of sugar. Even if you add your own sugar to these foods, you can certainly get by with less. To cut sugar even further, try sweetening cereal with a sliced banana or a handful of berries. And here’s another trick: try dropping a whole date or a few raisins and a few drops of vanilla extract into your carton of unsweetened milk alternative. It adds lots of flavor with just a trace of sugar.
  • Enjoy naturally sweet flavors. Your taste buds may be so over-saturated with sugar that you’ve lost your appreciation for foods that are naturally sweet. Fruits are an obvious substitute for sugary desserts. But sweet spices like cinnamon, nutmeg or clove can add sweet notes to fruits, cereals or yogurt in place of sugar.
  • Cut back on liquid sugar. It’s an obvious suggestion, I know. But when you consider that half the US population consumes a sugary drink on any given day, or that 25% of American adults take in 200 calories a day from sugary beverages, it’s a suggestion worth repeating. Curb your intake of soft drinks, sweetened coffee and tea drinks, and fruity drinks like lemonade. Instead, try flavorful teas, or add some citrus peel or a slice of fruit to your water for a calorie-free beverage.
  • Picture how much sugar you’re eating. Sometimes it helps if you visualize how much sugar you’re actually eating, so here’s a tip for you. Every four grams of sugar that’s listed on the nutrition facts panel is equal to a teaspoon of sugar—or about one sugar cube. A soda label that lists 36 grams of sugar in a serving may not sound that bad, but when you picture the nine sugar cubes it contains you just might think twice about drinking it.
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