The Facts About Sugar
Everyone knows soda, donuts, and ice cream are unhealthy because of (among other things) added sugar. A 12-oz Coke, for example, contains 39 grams of sugar, and virtually no other nutrients. Added sugar is often referred to as “empty calories,” or calories devoid of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Consuming too many empty calories can be worriesome because they will crowd out more nutritious foods from the diet. However, the detrimental effects of sugar go beyond merely taking up the space of rice, beans, and broccoli. In an article in Nature, Lustig, Schmidt, and Brindis wrote, “Authorities consider sugar as ’empty calories’ — but there is nothing empty about these calories. A growing body of scientific evidence shows that fructose can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and a host of other chronic diseases” (read the full article here). Food companies push the argument that a calorie is a calorie no matter where it comes from, reinforcing that the obesity epidemic is not their fault, but rather the fault of overeating and under-exercising. But the science seems to indicate that the quality of the food matters, perhaps more than the quantity. One of my favorite parts of the film Fed Up describes this very well.
Leading nutritional expert Colin Campbell sums up this concept extremely well in his book Whole. He claims that the way our body’s metabolize food is immensely complex, to the point that it is impossible for us to understand how we break down food in terms of specific nutrients. It is much better for us to eat a variety of plant foods in their whole forms than to focus on specific nutrients. This is part of why corn is healthy and corn syrup is not. Sugar is an isolated nutrient, and when we consume nutrients that are taken out of context of the whole food, the effects can be disastrous.
It’s obvious that too much sugar is unhealthy. We’ve all heard that before. But here’s the catch: Added sugar can be found in about three-quarters of processed foods, and a lot of places you might not expect. Here are eight foods with added sugar to keep an eye out for.
1. Ketchup and BBQ Sauce
Toppings like ketchup and barbecue sauce are often loaded with sugar. Take Hunt’s barbecue sauce. Just two tablespoons contains 11g of added sugar, much of which comes from high-fructose corn syrup. A couple servings contains sugar equivalent to half a can of soda.
2. Pasta Sauce
Another food topping to look out for is pasta sauce. A half cup of Barilla’s traditional marinara contains 8g of sugar. Pasta sauce is also high in added oils, another hidden ingredient to keep an eye out for.
3. Peanut Butter
JIF original lists sugar as the second ingredient behind peanuts and contains 3 grams of sugar per 2 tablespoons (not to mention hydrogenated oils). Peanut butter that lists one or two ingredients (peanuts and salt) is generally the best option. Note that even peanut butters that are advertised as “natural” like JIF’s natural peanut butter still contain a lot of added sugar.
4. Low-Fat Foods
During the post-WWII low-fat craze, the food industry developed all sorts of low-fat products that have stuck around today. However, because low-fat foods taste worse than full-fat foods, the food companies added a whole bunch of sugar to make their products taste better. A number of plant-based docs like Drs. Esselstyn and McDougall recommend high-carb, low-fat diets to prevent heart disease and other chronic diseases, but the carbs they recommend come from grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits in their whole form, not from reduced-fat oreos. A classic example that comes to mind is the Chobani greek yogurt cups. Chobani’s “Simply 100” Vanilla Coconut Macaron yogurt cups contain 8g of sugar, and sugar is the third ingredient. Less fat doesn’t necessarily mean healthy, even if it is marketed as such.
5. Granola Bars
Granola bars are great on the outside, being quick, convenient, and seemingly nutritious. However, one package of Nature Valley crunchy peanut butter bars (containing 2 bars) contains 11g of sugar. The second and third ingredients are sugar and canola oil (both come before peanut butter!). CLIF bars are another popular option. The crunchy peanut butter variety contains 20g of sugar. The first ingredient (!) is organic brown rice syrup, which is one of many clever pseudonyms for sugar (more on that later).
There is nothing wrong with a morning cup of coffee (maybe), but adding sugar is certainly something to worry about. Due to the rise of fancy “coffee” beverages at places like Starbucks, coffee is not just coffee anymore. A cup of black coffee is one thing, but a Starbucks grande caramel macchiato (which isn’t even a real macchiato) contains 33g of sugar, almost as much as the can of coke I mentioned earlier. Even something simple like a soy latte could contain added sugar because of number 7…
7. Non-Dairy Milk
I think it’s ridiculous that politicians and the dairy industry are whining about Almond Milk, but some dairy replacements are better than others. Non-dairy milks that do not say “unsweetened” on the carton generally have a lot of added sugar. Silk original soy milk contains 6g of sugar and lists cane sugar as the second ingredient.
8. Breakfast Cereal
The only breakfast cereals I’ve found that don’t contain added sugar are Post shredded wheat and grape nuts. If you’ve found others, let me know! The vast majority of breakfast cereals are full of added sugar. Take Quaker oatmeal squares: Seemingly harmless, but in reality containing 9 grams of sugar per cup.
A Few Final Thoughts
- This is by no means an extensive list. Like a said before, the majority of processed foods contain added sugar. These are just some foods that I could think of that many people do not consider to be “junk food,” but in reality contain lots of sugar.
- One meal does not cause disease. The amounts of sugar I listed are relatively small in the grand scheme of things. The worrisome thing about added sugar is that it shows up in so many places. It’s very easy to eat too much sugar without noticing.
- Sugar goes by many names, including sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, brown rice syrup, beet sugar, date sugar, and the list goes on and on.
- Above all, the most important thing to do is read the ingredients list, not the front of the box. Food companies exist to sell more food, which means marketing their food in a particular way. Making healthy nutrition seem more complicated than it is part of their marketing scheme. Something can be low-fat, all-natural, organic, or whatever else and still contain added sugar.
- Here is my pitch. One of the best reasons for a whole foods plant-based diet is that it doesn’t require calorie counting or checking ingredients. Even with meat in the diet, avoiding added oil, sugar, and processed foods will allow the body to do a better job of signaling when it is full. They don’t require stores to list ingredients on potatoes, because they’re just potatoes.
For More Information
- JAMA Study: Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults
- Why Calories Don’t Matter by Mark Hyman, MD
- How the Ideology of Low Fat Conquered America
- UCSF Added Sugar Fact Sheet
- Harvard Health Publications article by Julie Corliss
- How Much Added Sugar is Too Much? Video by Dr. Michael Greger
I hope you had a great weekend, and thanks for reading!