Added sugar is hard to avoid (trust us, we’ve tried). It’s hiding in all our favorite foods, many of which aren’t inherently sweet (why hello, bread, salad dressing, and tomato sauce), and it’s also often sneakily disguised under names that either sound like a science experiment, or like the latest health food fad.
Those many, many names make added sugar extra difficult to spot and cut out. But because eating too much added sugar is linked to numerous adverse health conditions—including diabetes, heart disease, and high cholesterol—eliminating it from your diet is a worthwhile endeavor.
There is a small but important difference between foods that naturally contain sugar and foods that contain added sugar, and it’s the second ones we’re talking about. Many good-for-you foods contain naturally occurring sugars. Fruit is the obvious one—that’s why it’s sweet and delicious. The difference is that naturally occurring sugars, when eaten as part of a whole food (that is, not as, say, fruit juice), also come with fiber, which helps regulate how quickly your body digests sugar. There’s also a lot of water, which decreases the overall amount of sugar per serving, plus vitamins for good measure. And while, yes, it is teeeeechnically possible to go overboard even on fruit, it’s always better to opt for the real thing over a food where the sugar is added in and therefore is more speedily absorbed into your bloodstream. Not only does a lot more of it end up stored as fat that way, but over time, too much sugar can damage arteries, overwhelm your ability to produce insulin, and contribute to obesity.
First things first: You have to know where to look for added sugar.
A quick glance at a nutrition label often isn’t enough to tell you about the added sugar content, says Brigitte Zeitlin, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.N., founder of the New York-based BZ Nutrition. That’s because nutrition labels don’t directly call out added sugar—though that will change when new labels are implemented in 2018 that will be specifically required to list added sugar. For now, you actually need to look at the full ingredients list.
Ingredients are listed in order of amount, so if sugar is one of the first three ingredients listed, Zeitlin says that product is mostly made of sugar. Alissa Rumsey, M.S., R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, also tells SELF that if sugar makes an appearance farther down the list but more than once, you may want to put that product back. “Manufacturers get away with not listing sugar as the first ingredient by naming three to five different types of sugar in smaller amounts farther down the label.”
Then you have to know what to look for.
Here, we’ve compiled all the sneaky names for added sugar that you might see on a nutrition label. Since some names for sugar are kind of obvious, we’re not talking about anything with the word “sugar” in it (brown sugar, coconut sugar, etc.), and instead we’re focusing on the sneaky synonyms you might not recognize, and the tricks food manufacturers sometimes employ to make their products seem healthier than they really are. Make mental flash cards, memorize them, and keep them in mind the next time you go grocery shopping.
Watch out for weird, science-y words that end in “ose.”
Zeitlin says that these words always, always, always mean added sugar. They include dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, saccharose, and sucrose. They may sound like a chemistry assignment, but the truth is that for the most part, these are just the basic sugar components you find anywhere. Fruit contains fructose and glucose, and the two put together make sucrose, which is what’s extracted from sugar cane and the like to make table sugar. But natural or not, their overabundance in the food we eat is a problem—the average American eats 77 pounds of sugar per year. “These types of sugars are mostly found in packaged and processed foods in order to manipulate the taste and increase the shelf-life,” she explains. Expect to find them in all the obvious places, as well as healthy-sounding things like pre-made smoothies and juices, protein and snack bars, and any number of other packaged foods.
And anything that seems like a “natural” sugar.
Natural sugars that are added in are still added sugars, because they don’t naturally occur where you’re eating them. There’s a clever marketing ploy at play a lot of the time. Natural seems better. It seems healthy. But sugar is sugar. And added is added.
Things like honey, agave, molasses, evaporated cane juice, and malt or any syrups, nectars, juices, or purees that show up on an ingredients list are all technically added sugars even though they sound less scary than dextrose, maltose, and fructose, says Zeitlin. These are especially important to watch out for when it comes in foods marketed as “naturally” sweetened. “These foods are still loaded with added sugars, but because ingredients like molasses and fruit juice are plant-based, manufacturers can get away with calling them ‘natural.’”
And if you’re interested in nixing artificial sweeteners, too, here’s what to look for.
Though Zeitlin explains that artificial sweeteners don’t add extra calories to your diet the same way added sugars do, they’ve been shown to cause weight gain and stomach problems when eaten in excess. So if you’re cutting out added sugars, you might as well cut these out, too.
Since artificial sweeteners are used in diet, sugar-free, and fat-free foods, they’re usually a lot easier to spot than plain old added sugars. Want to be extra sure you’re not accidentally eating any? Check that ingredients list for names like aspartame, ascelfame-K, saccharin, stevia, and sucralose.