Nutrition Articles

The Hunt for Hidden Sugar

How Much of the Sweet Stuff is Hiding Your Foods?

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Ready for a little experiment? Grab that jar of sugar, a measuring spoon, a plate and a can of regular soda. Then, dump one teaspoon of sugar onto the plate. Repeat this nine more times. Do you know what you have, besides a mess? The amount of sugar in one 12-ounce can of soda! Just look at that mound!

Now locate the sugar listing on the soda's nutrition label—40 grams. Four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. Do the math. That innocent can of pop contains 10 teaspoons of sugar and 160 empty calories.

Even if you don’t drink regular soda, the typical American now eats the equivalent of about 17 teaspoons (68 grams) of added sugars every day. That sugar alone adds up to 270 extra calories—more than 13% of the average person's caloric intake. 

Less is More


So how much should you be limiting these added sugars? Several health organizations, such as the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association have established guidelines regarding the intake of added sugars. A healthy eating pattern should limit added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day.  This does not include naturally occurring sugars found in fruits (fructose) and dairy products (lactose). The chart below lists this maximum recommended daily sugar intake based on various calorie levels.

Maximum Sugar Intake
(10% of Calorie Intake)



Daily Calorie
Intake

Calorie Limit
from
Added Sugars
 

Grams
of
Added Sugars

Teaspoons
of
Added Sugars

1,200
120 30 7.5

1,500
150 37.5 9.0

1,800
180 45 11

2,100
210 52.5 13

2,400
240 60 15

2,700
270 67.5 17
 

Deciphering Labels


It can be confusing to try to find out how much added sugar a food contains. The sugar listing on a Nutrition Facts label lumps all sugars together, including naturally-occurring milk and fruit sugars, which can be deceiving. This explains why, according to the label, one cup of milk has 11 grams of sugar even though it doesn't contain any sugar “added” to it.

To determine how much sugar has been added to a food product, follow these two tips:
  • Read the ingredients list. Learn to identify terms that mean added sugars, including sugar, white sugar, brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, corn syrup, dextrin, honey, invert sugar, maple syrup, raw sugar, beet sugar, cane sugar, corn sweeteners, evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, malt, molasses, and turbinado sugar, to name a few.
  • Refer to the chart below for approximate amounts of hidden sugar in foods.Check package nutrition facts label and ingredient list for greater accuracy on specific brands.
     

Hidden Sugars in Foods

Food Serving Size Added Sugar
Teaspoons 
Added Sugar
Grams 
                      Beverages  
Cranberry Juice Cocktail 1 cup 7 ½ tsp 30 g
Lemonade 1 cup 7 tsp 28 g
Soda Pop 12 ounce can 10 tsp 40 g
Sports Drink 20 ounce bottle 8 ½ tsp 34 g
Sweet Tea 1 cup 5 ½ tsp 22 g
Breakfast Foods
Breakfast Toaster Pastry 1 pastry 4 - 4 ½ tsp 16 – 18 g
Cereal Fruit Bar 1 bar 2 ½ - 3 tsp 10 - 12 g
Chocolate Puffed Cereal 1 cup 3 ½ tsp 14 g
Coffee cake 4 oz piece 5 tsp 20 g
Frosted Shredded Wheat Cereal 1 cup 3 tsp 12 g
Fruit Ring Cereal 1 cup 3 tsp 12 g
Glazed Doughnut 1 doughnut 4 tsp 16 g
Granola Bar 1 bar 2 tsp 8 g
Honey Coated Cereal 1 cup 3 tsp 12 g
Instant Sweetened Oatmeal 1 packet 3 tsp 12 g
                    Desserts  
Angel Food Cake 4 oz piece 7 tsp 28 g
Banana Cake 4 oz piece 2 tsp 8 g
Brownie, no icing 1 oz piece 4 tsp 16 g
Cheesecake 4 oz piece 2 tsp 8 g
Chocolate Cake, iced 4 oz piece 10 tsp 40 g
Chocolate Chip Cookie 1 cookie 2 tsp 8 g
Cupcake, iced 4 oz piece 6 tsp 24 g
Fig Newton Cookies 2 cookies 2 tsp 8 g
Gingersnaps 1 cookie 3 tsp 12 g
Oatmeal Cookie 1 cookie 2 tsp 8 g
Vanilla Pudding ½ cup 5 tsp 20 g
                     Candies  
Chocolate Candy Bar 1 bar 4 ½ tsp 18 g
Chocolate Mint 1 piece 2 tsp 8 g
  Condiments and Sauces
BBQ Sauce 2 tablespoons 3 tsp 12 g
Jam and Jelly 1 tablespoon 2 ½ - 3 tsp 10 – 12 g
Ketchup 2 tablespoons 2 tsp 8 g
Pasta or Spaghetti Sauce ½ cup 2-3 tsp 8-12 g
Salad Dressing 2 tablespoons ½ - 1 tsp  2-4 g
Other Foods
Bread, Whole Grain 1 slice 1 tsp 4 g
Crackers, Whole Grain 16 small crackers 1 tsp 4 g
Peanut Butter 2 tablespoons ¾ tsp 3 g
Tomato Soup 1 cup 3 tsp 12 g
Vanilla Yogurt 8 ounces 3 tsp 12 g

There is room to include a small amount of added sugars in your eating plan to improve the palatability and flavor of nutrient-rich foods—a sprinkle of brown sugar on your morning oatmeal or a dribble of honey in tart plain yogurt. However, the main sources of added sugars like sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets and snacks, need to be limited. These type foods provide little nutritional value to one’s diet but may be adding a substantial amount of unwanted calories.

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Member Comments

  • Sugar is part of life. Be moderate.
  • WOW! No wonder there are so many health problems facing us today!
  • My biggest thing is that I look at foods that might have a low level of sugar listed in the nutrition label, but I need to learn what names the sweeteners come under so I can avoid those too!
  • Wow! I never thought of actually measuring a mound of sugar to show how much is in a can of soda. Lots of food for thought on how much we eat/drink every day.
  • Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days. ? Zig Ziglar ~ 2/8/18
  • Eye opener article.
  • Never thought about sugar and reading labels till challenged thru SparkPeople. Thank you. I had given up condiments due to salt. Just to see since watching the sugar now was AMAZED what is in those. BBQ sauce which is a serving of 2 T. has 11g of sugar. One more gram would make a serving half sugar! This is just so wrong!
  • Thank you! I need constant reminders!
  • The sugar isn't exactly hidden if it's on the label. You do need to know all the different forms if the sugar content is important to you. Calling something cane juice is not hiding the sugar- actually some people are allergic to sugar cane but not to sugar beets and react to the traces of the source in the juice or crystals, so revealing the exact source of the sweetener is very helpful.

    Definitely separating sugars into added and naturally occurring will be very helpful on nutritional labels, but remember that naturally occurring sugars are still sugars. If your body has trouble with sugars in general, you still have to be careful. Combining fruits with protein often is suggested for diabetics, since that alters the absorption rate (which is helpful in diabetes). I would assume that fat may have the same effect. One more reason peanut butter is good food.... Apples and peanut butter!

    You can guess the relative amount of the added sugar by looking at its position on the label. In the US, ingredients are listed in order of content. At the end of the list, they may give ingredients that are less than 2% of the total.
  • One food comes to mind that a lot of people seem to think is lo-cal but is very high in sugar. Angel food cake.
  • Very informative!
  • The take away is that you have to be aware of labels and realize that there IS hidden sugar in foods and be aware of what you're reading on your nutrition label!
  • 221789
    Not sure how old is this article but the newest US Nutritional Facts label will have added sugars included. This will be required by July 26th.
  • PLCHAPPELL
    Watch out for sugar alcohols.

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.