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How to spot hidden sugars in your everyday foods

Kathy A. Johnson is a freelance writer and editor in central Florida. Her work has appeared online and in print publications ranging from Mothers & More Forum to Horse Journal.

Sneaky sugars in food

You expect ice cream and cookies to be packed with sugar, but what about bread? Peanut butter? A frozen chicken entrée? It’s true -- these and other "safe" foods often contain many hidden sugars. And here’s how to spot these sugars in your everyday foods.

Woman reading label

Packaged foods are loaded with sugar

According to the USDA, most added sugars in the American diet come from regular (non-diet) soft drinks -- about 33% of all added sugars consumed. Sweetened fruit drinks, candy, cake and ready-to eat cereal account for another 24%. But prepared foods, like ketchup, peanut butter, canned fruits and vegetables and "low-fat" products (where sugar has been added to make up for the reduction of fat) account for more than a quarter of the added sugar in the American diet.

Why do food manufacturers add sugar to products? Other than the obvious -- to make foods sweeter -- manufacturers add sugar to improve and maintain foods' color, texture and shelf life.

Avoid added sugars

Some sugars occur in foods naturally, like the lactose found in milk and the fructose in fruit. These sugars don't concern nutritionists as much as others because the foods that contain them also contain nutrients our bodies need. According to the USDA, "added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation." They also include any sugar you add to the food and drinks you make at home.

Read the label to find hidden sugars

To find the sugar hidden in your everyday foods, read the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredients list carefully. Under "carbohydrates," you should find the word "sugars." At this time, there's no differentiation between naturally-occurring sugars and added sugars on the label. Ingredients are listed by weight, from the most to the least. If one or more of the first few ingredients on the list are forms of sugar (see below), the item will likely be high in total sugars. "Keep in mind that if the product has no fruit or milk in the ingredients, all of the sugars in the food are from added sugars," says the American Heart Association.

Sugar by other names

When reading the ingredients list, in addition to "sugar," watch for these ingredients -- they're alternate names for forms of added sugar: corn sweetener, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fruit juice concentrates, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, cane juice, cane syrup and sucrose. Any ingredient ending in "ose" is likely a form of sugar.

Easy ways to reduce sugar in your diet

If you want to reduce the amount of hidden sugars in your diet, limit processed foods and control portion sizes of foods that have added sugars. Choose reduced-sugar syrups, jams and preserves.

Sugar in excess harms health

While small amounts of added sugar are probably not harmful, most Americans consume more than twice the daily allowable amount of added sugars. Too much sugar often leads to weight gain, and all the health problems that come with being too heavy. More nutritious foods may be overlooked in the quest for something sweet. By reading labels and choosing carefully, you can reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet.

More on hidden sugars and your health

How to sideline sneaky sugars
Healthy foods that aren't healthy
Hidden sugar hurts your heart

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