Reading Food Labels for Hidden Sugar

In this comprehensive guide, we will learn about “Reading Food Labels for Hidden Sugar.”. Eating too much added sugar is linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10% of daily calories. With the average American consuming 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, it’s clear that cutting back could significantly improve health.

Food Labels for Hidden Sugar

One of the best ways to reduce sugar intake is reading food labels carefully. Packaged foods often contain large amounts of added sugars, even foods that don’t taste sweet. It takes a bit of label literacy to find the sneaky sources of added sugar. This guide will teach you how to spot added sugars on ingredient lists and Nutrition Facts panels.

How Much Sugar is Too Much?

First it helps to understand how much added sugar is recommended per day. The American Heart Association advises:

  • Men: No more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams)
  • Women: No more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams)
  • Children: Allowance varies by age and calorie needs, max of 6 teaspoons (24 grams)

To put this in perspective, a 12 ounce can of soda contains 8 teaspoons of added sugar. Many packaged foods contain even more.

So when reading labels, look for products with little to no added sugars. Avoid any item with more than a few grams per serving.

Types of Added Sugars

Food manufacturers add several types of sugars to processed foods and beverages. Some common forms to look for on ingredient lists:

  • Brown sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Glucose
  • High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Malt syrup
  • Maltose
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Sugar
  • Syrup

These sweeteners provide empty calories without nutritional benefits. The body metabolizes them the same way as plain white sugar. Any type of added sugar should be limited in a healthy diet.

Identifying Added Sugars on Ingredient Lists

Reading ingredient lists is the best tactic for finding sources of added sugar. Ingredients are always listed by quantity, from highest to lowest amount.

  • Sugars listed first or second could indicate a high sugar content.
  • Even minor ingredients like “evaporated cane juice” add extra sugar.
  • Watch for multiple sugar sources spread throughout the list.

Beware of health foods that seem wholesome but actually contain large amounts of added sugar. Some examples:

  • Granola bars with honey or “natural” sweeteners
  • Fruit flavored yogurts (sugar is often 2nd or 3rd ingredient)
  • Pre-made smoothies with fruit juice or syrups
  • Oatmeal instant packets with sugar
  • Jarred pasta sauce with sugar in top 3 ingredients

Condiments and sauces commonly include sugar in various forms too. Ketchup, barbecue sauce, salad dressings, and dipping sauces are prime offenders.

Whenever possible choose no-sugar-added or low-sugar varieties of packaged foods. Or better yet – stick to whole foods without labels, like fruits, vegetables, lean protein, eggs, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

Using the Nutrition Facts Panel

After scanning the ingredients, check the Nutrition Facts panel for specifics on sugar content.

First look at the serving size and number of servings per container. Often one package contains multiple servings.

Then check the Sugars line. This shows both natural and added sugars in grams. Remember the daily limit is about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams.

  • 5% or less of daily value is low
  • 20% or more is high

Note that the FDA requires listing added sugars separately under the Total Sugars line. But compliance has been inconsistent so far. When in doubt, rely on the ingredient list more than the nutrition panel.

Some savvy manufacturers list “No Added Sugars” on the front of the package. This makes it quick and easy to identify better choices.

Watching Out for Sneaky Sugars

Here are some specific products that tend to harbor hidden sugar:

Flavored yogurt – Vanilla and fruit flavors often pack in extra sugars. Choose plain non-fat Greek yogurt and add your own fresh fruit.

Canned fruit – Syrups are commonly added. Look for fruit packed in juice or water.

Dried fruit – While naturally high in sugar, some companies add even more sweeteners like sugar syrups. Unsweetened 100% dried fruit is better.

Breakfast cereal – Cereals marketed as “healthy” or “low fat” are some of the worst sugar offenders. Opt for plain whole grain cereals like oats or bran flakes.

Granola bars – Sugar is often the 2nd or 3rd ingredient after some form of grain. Look for options with only 6-10 grams sugar.

Canned beans – You’d think beans would be safe, but some varieties have added sugar! Rinse well to remove about 40% of the sweeteners.

Jarred pasta sauce – Many leading brands load up on added sugar. Seek organic, low sodium options. Making your own sauce is ideal.

Condiments – Ketchup, barbecue sauce, teriyaki sauce, and others add surprising amounts of sugar. Make your own or buy low-sugar versions.

Salad dressing – Lots of added sweeteners in ranch, Italian, balsamic vinaigrette, and other dressed. Opt for olive oil and vinegar instead.

Flavored waters – Seems healthy but can have just as much sugar as soda! Stick to plain or naturally flavored unsweetened seltzer.

Protein and energy bars – Often glorified candy bars in terms of added sugars. Search for options under 5 grams per serving.

Bottled iced tea – Presweetened varieties harbor added sugars. Brew your own fresh tea instead.

Sports drinks – Designed for replenishing athletes, but unnecessary for most people. Water is best.

Vitamin water – Assumes healthy with vitamins added, but also packed with sugar! Choose plain or naturally flavored water.

Coffee drinks – Specialty lattes and blended frozen drinks pile on both sugar and fat. Opt for plain coffee or tea.

Tips for Avoiding Added Sugar Traps

Here are some key strategies for limiting added sugars in your diet:

  • Learn the many names for added sugars so you can spot them on labels.
  • Compare brands and varieties to find options with little or no added sugars.
  • Choose plain whole foods like produce, meat, fish, eggs, rice, quinoa and avoid packaged items whenever possible.
  • Eat more home-cooked meals made from scratch using natural ingredients.
  • Drink water, seltzer, or unsweetened tea instead of sugary beverages.
  • Limit alcohol intake since cocktails, wine and beer also contain hidden sugar.
  • Satisfy sweet cravings with fresh fruit.
  • Use small amounts of 100% pure maple syrup, honey, or stevia to sweeten foods if needed.
  • Avoid sugary desserts and limit higher sugar fruits like grapes and bananas.

With careful label reading and good judgment, it’s possible to enjoy sweet flavors without all the added sugars that harm your health. Focus on whole foods, read labels closely, and stick to the recommended daily limits.


Added sugars hide everywhere from salad dressing to packaged oatmeal, yogurt, sauces, and “healthy” snack bars. Reading food labels carefully helps uncover the surprising sources. Look for sugar aliases in the ingredients, and check the total sugar grams in the Nutrition Facts panel. Compare brands and choose options with little or no added sugar whenever possible. With some label literacy, it’s possible to significantly lower sugar intake and improve diet and health.

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