Sugar Content in Foods

Annette McDermott
Sugar Content

Even the most diet conscious person may be surprised at the sugar content in foods. It's found in obvious places and hidden in plain sight. Since sugar has several aliases, it's hard to know exactly where it's lurking in the grocery store aisles.

Where Is the Sugar?

Healthy eaters often attempt to go the no-sugar or low-sugar route as they count calories, but they sometimes overlook common foods that also contain high levels of sugar. Reading labels can help you determine if sugar is in a particular food. In addition to the word "sugar" and the common term "sucrose," there are several other ingredients to watch out for on a food label including:

  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Glucose
  • Lactose
  • Maltose

Don't forget to look for other sugar products, such as:

  • Corn syrup
  • Malt syrup
  • Molasses
  • Beet sugar
  • Agave
  • Rice syrup
  • Cane sugar
  • Caramel
  • Maple syrup
  • Sorghum
  • Honey

Sugar Alcohols

While you might be familiar with traditional forms of sugars, you may not know about sugar alcohols which are found in many breath mints, chewing gums, and products marketed as "low-carb" or "sugar free." According to Yale New-Haven Hospital, sugar alcohols are a naturally occurring sweetener that are lower in calories than sugar and converted to glucose in the body at a slower pace. They are chemically similar to alcohol but do not contain ethanol and do not have the same effects as alcohol on the body.

Some people are sensitive to sugar alcohols and experience stomach pain, bloating, and/or diarrhea.

Common sugar alcohols include:

  • Maltitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol

Reading the Labels

If you're trying to avoid sugar, it's important that you read food labels. Food labels are required to list a product's ingredients and nutritional values. This includes listing sugar and sugar alcohol grams per serving. If you're concerned about eating too much sugar, here are a few things to look out for:

  • 2L Soda Label
    Be sure to look for sugar and all of its forms in the ingredient list. And remember, the earlier an ingredient is listed in the list, the higher its content in the product. To make it simple for you as you read food labels, be aware that words which end in "ose" or "ol" typically indicate some type of sugar products.
  • Read how many sugar grams per serving are in the product. Keep in mind that one teaspoon of white sugar equals approximately four grams. Use that formula to help you figure out how many teaspoons of sugar you're eating. The American Heart Association recommends that women get no more than six teaspoons of sugar each day. Yet a 12 ounce can of cola has 33 grams of sugar - that's over eight teaspoons of sugar. If you drink just one can per day, you've already exceeded the recommended daily limit.
  • Read serving sizes. Some products have more than one serving size in a package. Do the math to figure out exactly how much sugar there is in each serving.

FDA Rules

Understand the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) rules on labeling sugar content.

  • "Sugar Free" means the product has less than .5 grams of sugar per serving. If you eat more than one serving, the sugar grams add up.
  • "No Added Sugar" means that no sugar has been added to the product but it may still contain natural sugars as is the case of products containing fruit.
  • "Reduced Sugar" means that the product may contain 25% less sugar than it usually would.
  • The words "Unsweetened" and "No Added Sweeteners" do not apply to sugar alcohols.

The FDA's new proposed nutrition label includes "Added Sugars" on the label. This will help consumers determine how much sugar is naturally occurring in a product and how much is added.

Surprising High Sugar Content Foods

Sugar is everywhere, even in so-called "healthy" foods. And fast food and chain restaurants are notorious for serving high-sugar foods. Following is a chart that lists common foods and beverages and their sugar content.

Food/Beverage Sugar Grams
Non-fat Fruit Flavored Yogurt (4.4 oz. container) 24
Unsweetened Applesauce (1 cup) 23
Oatmeal (1 packet Quaker Instant Cinnamon Spice) 16
Spaghetti/Marinara Sauce (1 cup) 23
Lowfat Chocolate Milk (1 cup) 25
Protein Bars (1 Apricot Clif Bar) 23
Breakfast Cereal (General Mills Apple Cinnamon Cheerios - 3/4 cup dry) 13
Frozen Yogurt (1/2 cup vanilla soft serve) 17
Tomato Soup (Campbell's Healthy Request Condensed - 1/2 cup) 10
Starbucks Cafe Latte Grande with Nonfat Milk 16
Orange Juice (1 cup, unsweetened) 22

In addition to the above, there are other foods you might not consider when thinking of foods high in sugar. These include:

  • Barbecue sauce
  • Cranberry juice
  • Juice boxes
  • Peanut butter
  • Salad dressings
  • Teriyaki sauce
  • Canned fruits and vegetables
  • Granola and cereal bars
  • Bread
  • Pie crusts
  • French fries
  • Dried fruits
  • Sun-dried tomatoes
  • Fruit leather

Baby and Toddler Foods

With childhood obesity such a major issue in this country, you'd think foods created for kids would be low in sugar, but that's not the case. In fact, despite The American Heart Association recommendation that children ages four to eight get no more than three teaspoons of sugar each day, they often consume much more.

Even many baby and toddler foods are high in sugar grams. For example, Beech Nut's Breakfast-on-the-go Yogurt, Banana and Mixed Berry Blend contains a whopping 14 grams of sugar per serving, over three teaspoons. Even no sugar added foods are high in sugar - Gerber's 2nd Foods Apple Banana Strawberry contains 12 grams.

Additional Resources

Numerous websites list the sugar content in foods, and these websites can be quite helpful as you plan your daily diet plan.

  • USDA-This is probably the most comprehensive and accurate site on the Web. This PDF file breaks down foods into groups and then gives the sugar content of each food. Each food lists the carbohydrates, total sugars, and added sugars. If you want to continue referring to this list, consider printing it out and posting it in your kitchen.

Tips for Keeping Sugar Intake Low

There are steps you can take to reduce your sugar intake. Here are some to consider:

  • Always read food labels and serving sizes carefully.
  • Eat whole fruits whenever possible. Eating the whole fruit instead of fruit juice or dried fruit (which often has added sugar and removes healthy fiber) can drastically cut your sugar intake.
  • Avoid processed foods as much as possible including cookies, snack cakes, and flavored chips.
  • Eat fresh vegetables instead of canned.
  • Eliminate or drastically cut back on the number of sugary beverages you consume including sodas, sports drinks, fruit juice and sweetened teas. Replace them with unsweetened tea or coffee, plain water, or water flavored with fresh fruit slices.
  • Dress salads with olive oil and lemon or a dash of vinegar instead of a high-sugar salad dressing.
  • Cook at home as much as possible instead of eating out. If you do make a fast food run, check out the nutrition data on the restaurant's website first to find the healthiest option.
  • Finally, remember that typically "low-sugar content" doesn't necessarily mean that a food is low in calories. Low sugar content is relative. Instead of looking at descriptive words, pay attention to exact content numbers on food labels.

Less Sugar

Because sugar plays such a prominent role in the foods you eat, it may seem like a losing battle to reduce your sugar intake. But, ultimately, you are in control of what you buy and what you consume. While it's true that foods high in sugar greatly outnumber their low sugar counterparts, if you spend time educating yourself about what's in your food, carefully read food labels, eat whole food as much as possible, and cut back on processed food and sugary beverages, you'll lessen the amount of sugar in your diet.

Sugar Content in Foods