The American Heart Association recommends that adult women consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugars per day. For men, the limit is nine teaspoons. When scanning food nutrition labels, you can read 4 grams of sugar as equal to about one teaspoon. But be aware that labels typically lump natural sugars (fruit, grains) together with added sugars (corn syrup, sucrose), so check a product's ingredient list closely to get a better sense of the sugar it carries in all its various forms: granulated sugar, brown sugar, molasses, agave nectar, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup, cane syrup and anything else ending in "ose." People can debate the health benefits of honey or natural sweeteners over refined white table sugar, but the bottom line is that to the body, sugar is sugar. And too much is too much. (As for sugar substitutes, they're technically chemicals that mimic the taste of sugar. As with the real stuff, moderation is key.)
Here’s a look at some surprising sources of sugar in your diet, as well as tips on cutting back.
1. Frozen Meals
You may be pleased to discover lower-fat, lighter fare among the meals in your supermarket's frozen food aisle. The problem is, when companies ditch the fat, they often pump up flavor by adding inexpensive sugars instead. In fact, many frozen meals rival candy when it comes to sugar content.
How to cut the sugar: Scour the aisles for frozen meals that aren't packaged with sugary sauces and desserts. Or, even better, avoid the packaged meals (which also tend to be packed with sodium) altogether. Beware: When those protein sources are packed in broths, sauces or spicy rubs, they may be loaded with salt.
2. Salad Dressing
Food companies already stir lots of sweetener, into vinaigrettes and other salad dressings. A two-tablespoon serving of Kraft Creamy French Salad Dressing, for example, delivers about one-and-a-half teaspoons (6 grams) of sugar. Use a quarter-cup of dressing, and you’re sweetening your salad with a full tablespoon of sugar. Devoted to light or fat-free dressings? Count on finding lots of sugar in those as well
How to cut the sugar: First, read the labels better and seek out salad dressings with 0 to 2 grams of sugar per serving. Or just buy good quality oils and vinegars and make the easiest, tastiest dressing on the planet: vinaigrette. Here’s a traditional recipe, or you can try this lighter version. You’ll never go back to bottled dressings — or their sweeteners — again.
You already know that Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs and other childhood favorites carry too much sugar for your adult palate (not to mention the kids'). So you’re diligently stocking up on what appear to be healthier cereals filled with whole grains, vitamins and antioxidants. But guess what else they're filled with? Post Great Grains Cranberry Almond Crunch provides all of its promised whole grain — with exactly the same amount of sugar per serving as Fruit Loops. Similar scenarios can be found on nutrition labels up and down the cereal aisle; high-fiber and bran varieties are among the worst offenders.
How to cut the sugar: Stick with simple cereals — plain, whole-grain flakes, circles or squares that have four to five grams of sugar, or less, per serving. (Keep in mind, though, that if you have two servings you'll be doubling that sugar intake.) Some options include Post Shredded Wheat or Shredded Wheat ‘n Bran, which has no sugar at all. To make your breakfast bowl sweet, add (in moderation) some raisins or dried cranberries.
4. Pasta Sauce
Italian cooks sometimes add a pinch of sugar to a pot of marinara to soften the natural acidity of tomatoes. But some food companies have turned a pinch into a punch by dropping as much as one or two teaspoons of sugar into each half-cup of their sauces. You can expect about three grams of natural sugar from the tomatoes in each half-cup of marinara. Anything more than that is added sweetener.
How to cut the sugar: Try make your own version using plain canned crushed tomatoes.
5. Flavored Yogurts
Plain, low-fat yogurts are nutritional powerhouses, rich in calcium and high-quality protein. But flavored and "fruit" yogurts contain more sugar than fruit and can negate your healthy goals — they have as much as 16 to 28 grams of sugar (that's four-to-seven teaspoons!) in each serving.
How to cut the sugar: It's simple. Just opt for plain reduced-fat yogurt and add cut-up fresh fruit or unsweetened frozen fruits. Your sweet tooth may require some time to adjust to the more subtle sweetness, but it's well worth the effort. You can also drizzle your dish with a half-teaspoon of honey or maple syrup. That will add two to three grams of sugar, which is still far less than those flavored yogurts provide, plus you can easily cut back on that as you adjust to the less sweetened stuff.
6. Snack Bars
Nothing beats the convenience of a granola or "fitness" bar for on-the-go snacking. The trouble is, many bars are just as sweet (and almost as nutrient-poor) as candy bars. Like many other products in this group, Nature Valley Sweet & Salty Nut Granola Bars has photos of peanuts, cashews and almonds on its box, and yet three of the first five ingredients on the label are sugars. So it's no surprise that each bar packs three teaspoons of sugar, with just a single gram of fiber, and only three grams of protein.
How to cut the sugar: Stick with bars whose labels show just four to five grams of sugar per serving. But it’s just as easy (and cheaper) to grab a few tablespoons of mixed nuts and an apple, or to carry a single-serve pouch of pistachios and a fresh peach.
In other words, whole foods make the best snacks, and they come from Mother Nature.
How sweet is that?