Eating a lot of added sugar is really
bad for your health.
The average American may be eating around 15 teaspoons (60
grams) of added sugar per day (10).
However, most people aren’t pouring tons of sugar on their
A large part of the sugar people eat is “hidden” inside various
packaged and processed foods, many of which are then marketed
Here are 8 ways that food companies hide the sugar content of
1. Calling Sugar by a Different Name
Sugar is the general name given to the short-chain carbs
that give your food a sweet taste. However, sugar has many
different forms and names.
You may recognize some of these names, such as glucose,
fructose and sucrose. Others are harder to identify.
The fact that companies use these different types of sugar,
especially ones with more unusual names, makes spotting sugar
on food labels difficult.
To stop yourself from accidentally eating too much sugar, look
out for these added sugars on food labels:
- Barley malt
- Beet sugar
- Brown sugar
- Buttered sugar
- Cane juice crystals
- Cane sugar
- Caster sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Crystalline fructose
- Date sugar
- Dextran, malt powder
- Ethyl maltol
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Golden sugar
- Invert sugar
- Muscovado sugar
- Palm sugar
- Organic raw sugar
- Rapadura sugar
- Evaporated cane juice
- Confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
Food manufacturers also add sugar to foods in the form of
syrups. Syrups are usually thick liquids that are made up of
large amounts of sugar dissolved in water.
They are used to sweeten a wide variety of foods, but are most
often found in cold drinks or other liquids.
Common syrups to look out for on food labels include:
Unfortunately, the list of different names for sugar is even
longer. For a more detailed review of the names that sugar can
go by, check out this
Bottom Line: Sugar has many different names
and forms, which can make it difficult to spot sugar on food
2. Using Many Different Types of Sugar
Ingredients are listed by weight, with the main ingredients
listed first. This means that the more of something there is in
a food, the higher up on the list it appears.
Food manufacturers often take advantage of this. To make their
products appear healthier, some use smaller amounts of three or
four different types of sugar in one product.
These sugars then appear further down on the ingredients list,
making a product look like it’s low in sugar when sugar is
actually one of the main ingredients.
For example, some protein bars — despite being considered
healthy — are
very high in added sugar. There may be as much as 7.5
teaspoons (30 grams) of added sugar in a single bar.
Below is an example of an ingredients list taken from a protein
bar. The different sugars are indicated in bold.
- Protein blend (soy protein isolate, whey protein
concentrate, calcium caseinate)
- Corn syrup
- Flavored coating (sugar, fractionated palm
kernel oil, cocoa, whey, nonfat milk, soy lecithin, natural
- Coconut oil
- Natural flavor
- Soy lecithin
- Guar gum
The ingredients list makes this bar look like it contains more
protein than sugar, since the first ingredient on the list is a
However, there are four different types of sugar in this bar.
This means that, despite containing 20 grams of protein, this
bar contains 29 grams of sugar. That’s two more grams of sugar
than a Snickers bar.
So if you’re looking at food labels, be aware that there may be
more than one type of sugar listed on the label.
Bottom Line: Food manufacturers can
sometimes use three or four different types of sugar. These
are often added in smaller amounts and can make a product
look lower in sugar than it is.
3. Adding Sugar to Foods You’d Least Expect
It’s common sense that a piece of cake or a candy bar probably
has a lot of sugar in it.
However, some food manufacturers add large amounts of sugar to
foods that are generally not sweet. Examples include breakfast
cereals, spaghetti sauce and yogurt.
Some yogurts can contain as much as 6 teaspoons (29 grams) of
sugar in a single container.
Even whole-grain breakfast bars, which may seem like a healthy
choice, can contain as much as 4 teaspoons (16 grams) of sugar
in one bar.
Many people don’t realize these foods contain added sugar, and
are therefore unaware of how much they’re consuming.
So if you’re buying food or ingredients that have been
pre-packaged or processed, make sure you read the label and
check the sugar content — even if the food is labeled
Bottom Line: Sugar can be added to all sorts
of foods, even ones that don’t taste sweet. Make sure to
check the labels of packaged or processed foods.
4. Using “Healthy” Sugars Instead of Sucrose
Food companies also make some of their products appear
healthier by swapping sugar for an alternative “healthier”
These unrefined sweeteners are usually made from the sap,
fruit, flowers or seeds of plants. They may also be made by
animals — like honey, for example.
Products that contain these sweeteners will often have claims
on their labels, such as, “contains no refined sugar” or
This means that they don’t contain white sugar, which has been
processed to remove the molasses.
These sugars can appear healthier, since some are thought to
have a slightly lower glycemic index than regular sugar and may
provide a few nutrients.
However, the amount of nutrients these sugars provide is
usually very low and “unrefined” added sugar is still added
There is also currently no evidence that swapping one form of
sugar for another will provide any health benefits,
particularly if you are still eating too much sugar.
Here are a few examples of common sweeteners that are high in
sugar, but often labeled as healthy:
- Agave syrup
- Birch syrup
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- Cane sugar
- Sugar beet syrup
If you see these sweeteners on a food label, remember that they
are still sugar and should be eaten sparingly.
Bottom Line: Food manufacturers sometimes
replace white table sugar with unrefined or “raw” sugar. This
can make the product appear healthier, but unrefined sugar is
5. Combining Added Sugars With Natural Sugars on the
Certain foods, such as
fruit, vegetables and dairy products, contain naturally
occurring sugars. Unlike added sugar, these aren’t really a
This is because naturally occurring sugars are difficult to eat
in large amounts. Additionally, eating whole foods that contain
them provides other beneficial nutrients.
For example, a cup of milk contains 3 teaspoons (13 grams) of
sugar. Yet you also get 8 grams of protein and around
one-quarter of your daily requirements for calcium and vitamin
The same size serving of Coke contains nearly twice the amount
of sugar and no other nutrients (12).
One of the problems with food labels is that they don’t list
how much of the sugar in a product is added sugar and how much
is natural sugar. They combine all the sugar together and list
it as a single amount.
This makes it really tricky to identify how much sugar is found
naturally in the food and how much is added.
Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to identify how much
sugar in food comes from added sugar.
Bottom Line: Added and naturally occurring
sugars are often listed together on food labels. For this
reason, it can be hard to work out how much sugar comes from
harmful added sugar.
6. Adding a Health Claim to Products
It’s not always easy to tell which products on the shelf are
healthy and which are not.
Food manufacturers often put health claims on the front of
foods. This can make some foods seem like a healthy choice,
when in fact they are full of added sugar.
The most common examples of this are in products that are
labeled as “healthy,” “low-fat,” “diet” or “light.”
These products are indeed often lower in fat and calories than
the regular versions. However, food manufacturers often add
more sugar to make them taste good.
Bottom Line: Products with health claims
such as low-fat, diet or light can have more sugar than the
7. Having a High Number of Servings per Pack
Food packaging often comes with nutrition information
prominently displayed per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) and also per
A common trick in the food industry is to make the listed
portion size really small.
Usually, this means there may be several servings in a packet.
The amount of sugar in each of these small servings might
appear low when, in fact, most people would eat two or three
times that amount in one serving.
To avoid this trap, look at the portion size listed
and the total weight of the product.
If there are lots of servings for a small amount of food, you
might mean end up eating more sugar than you had planned.
Bottom Line: Food manufacturers can make
products seem like they contain less sugar than they do by
listing small portion sizes.
8. Making Sweet Versions of a Low-Sugar Brand
You might know that some of your favorite brands of foods are
quite low in sugar.
However, food manufacturers sometimes piggyback on an
established brand and release a new version that contains way
This is quite common with breakfast cereals, where a
whole-grain cereal that’s low in sugar may appear with added
flavors or different ingredients.
This can confuse people who assume that the new version is just
as healthy as their usual choice.
Bottom Line: Brands of food that are low in
sugar can have other products that are much higher in sugar.
This attracts loyal customers who may not realize the new
version isn’t as healthy as the original.
Take Home Message
Added sugar can be really hard to spot.
The easiest way to avoid added sugar is to cook most of your
food at home and avoid highly processed foods.
That said, not all convenience foods are unhealthy or contain
lots of added sugar.
If you’re buying pre-packed foods, make sure you learn how to
spot added sugar on food labels.