Your Personal Meal Planning Assistant
August 21, 2017 / Amy Height

How to Be a Sugar Detective: Finding Hidden Sugar in Foods

Yogurt and berry breakfast tarts with granola

According to the US Department of Health, added sugars make up about 13% of the average American’s diet each day. This works out to about 270 calories, or roughly half a meal of added sugar alone!

You might not be surprised to hear that nearly half of the added sugar in the average diet comes from soda, or even that a third is consumed via baked goods and candy. What might surprise you, though, is the hidden sugar in foods that are marketed as healthy. Misnomers like “pure” and “natural” can lead us to skip reading the ingredients and take home more sugar-filled groceries than we think.

The trouble with this is that sugar is a major contributor to many chronic health conditions, including diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. The recommended intake of added sugar for women should not exceed 6 teaspoons (for men, 9 teaspoons) daily. For reference, one Noosa yogurt cup has more than 8 teaspoons of added sugar.

So where do these sugars hide unexpectedly? Many of the foods with the highest sugar content don’t even seem objectively sweet! Get ready to be a little surprised by these products, all of which have more sugar than they have any business containing.


Added sugar is often used to balance out a recipe’s high salt content. Campbell’s tomato soup, for instance, contains 12 grams of sugar in a half-cup serving!

Read the label thoroughly to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting. If you’re looking to cut out sugar entirely, making your own soup from scratch or opting for a brand like Amy’s Organics (all sugar-free) can be a good swap.


All yogurt contains the natural sugar lactose, but most yogurts also contain added sugar in a variety of forms, appearing as straight-up cane sugar, cane syrup and corn syrup. These can equate to upwards of 14 grams of sugar (3 teaspoons) in one 4-ounce serving of even the plainest flavors. A healthy yogurt should contain two ingredients: milk (or a milk substitute, like coconut cream) and a bacterial culture. Look for brands with the simplest ingredient list to get the most nutrition per serving.

Barbecue sauce

Barbecue sauce is delicious… largely because of its impressively high sugar content: 11 grams per 2 tablespoon serving. Read another way, that means about 40% of its entire makeup is sugar. The first ingredient in Bull’s Eye BBQ Sauce is high fructose corn syrup. They’ve also included molasses and honey for good measure. For a savory condiment, this is a lot of sweetness!

Whip up a batch of your own, like this version from A Real Food Lover, or try cooking proteins with fresh herbs, ghee or pure tomato sauce instead.


Per one tablespoon serving of ketchup, expect close to one teaspoon of sugar, which can come from cane sugar, beet sugar, dextrose, corn syrup or glucose syrup. Even someorganic brands that claim to be “sugar-free” contain maltodextrin, a corn-derived ingredient with a glycemic index score more than double that of cane sugar. Ketchup’s flavor is so specific, so sometimes nothing else will do: just be mindful of portion sizes. If you can make the swap, salsa or sun-dried tomatoes can be great no-sugar alternatives.

Chocolate milk

Sure, chocolate milk is sweetened – how else would it taste so exceptionally dessert-like? Did you know that one cup of flavored milk contains 12 grams of sugar (or half your recommended added sugar intake for the day?). Milk naturally contains lactose, a form of sugar, but its impact on the body is different than that of sugars containing fructose, such as sucrose. Plain milk will still show a sugar content on the label: that’s the lactose. This, or unsweetened vegan milk alternatives are better options than chocolate milk.

Granola and cereal

Sure, we expect to see tons of sugar in Count Chocula and Lucky Charms, but seemingly “natural” granolas and cereals are stealthy sugar bombs. A quarter of the ingredients in this organic Honey Oat Crunch, for example, are forms of sugar, and the total sugar content is about a third of what you should consume daily.

Make your own granola (there are many recipes on PlateJoy!) or seek out unsweetened or Paleo-inspired brands that incorporate minimal amounts of natural sweeteners like coconut sugar or unprocessed maple syrup.

Protein bars

Although KIND Bars are marketed as a whole food, nutrient-dense snack option, some flavors contain up to 11 grams of sugar (from honey, glucose syrup and sugar). ZONE protein bars – touted as an excellent weight-loss product – contain 14 grams of sugar and an ingredient list that is jaw dropping.

Instead of these packaged high-protein snacks, opt for something whole and unprocessed instead like nuts, nut butter, jerky, canned fish or an egg. You can also make your own high-protein snack bars, which will allow you to control your own sugar intake.

Sports drinks

Get ready for this one: one bottle of Powerade contains 52 grams of sugar, almost exclusively from high fructose corn syrup. Sports drinks are intended to provide quick fuel during endurance workouts or replenishment during athletics; too often, they’re consumed casually like soda or juice, two other high-sugar offenders. Unless you’re truly running an ultramarathon, you shouldn’t need this quantity of quickly metabolized sugar. Opt for water, unsweetened coffee or tea.


The Aloha Pineapple smoothie at Jamba Juice, featuring bananas, strawberries, pineapple juice and sherbet, has a healthy aura, doesn’t it? Actually, it contains 67 grams of sugar in total, or about 16.5 teaspoons. Their menu doesn’t specify how the sugar is broken down (just that the sherbet and Greek yogurt “contain milk”), so yes, some comes au naturel from the fruit, but the rest is added.

Make your own smoothies instead, using fresh fruit, unsweetened milk or milk alternatives, unsweetened protein powders… and skip the fruit juice. Even though the sugars in fruit juice are “natural”, juice lacks a lot of the nutrients and fiber that make whole fruit healthful. Excessive consumption of even natural sugar can be as detrimental as drinking excessive soda. A cold-pressed green juice or just plain ole water are also excellent substitutes.

How to Spot Hidden Sugar in Foods

The best way to avoid hidden sugar in your meals is to make them at home: you control what goes in and what doesn’t. When you are buying packaged and pre-made products, though, opt for products that don’t have labels or that contain single ingredients whenever possible: think whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, clean protein sources, nuts, seeds and legumes.

You can also familiarize yourself with this list of  sugar offenders and commit to being diligent about reading product labels to avoid bringing home more sugar than you intended to. Ingredients on labels are organized by highest concentration to lowest: if sugar appears in the first five ingredients, skip it altogether.

Amy Height
Holistic Nutritionist @ From the Ground Up Wellness

Amy Height is the founder of From the Ground Up Wellness, a holistic nutrition practice where she specializes in plant-based nutrition and helping her clients combat food addiction. She completed her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where she received her certification in the Health Coach Training Program. She is a triathlete and CrossFitter with a passion for all things outdoors. By night, Amy stage manages Broadway musicals and she frequently travels North America seeking out the best vegan restaurants and the best run courses. Follow her on Instagram or check out her blog for recipe and wellness ideas.

rainbow flourish

Don't miss more tips on how to live healthier.
Get new posts direct to your inbox!