15 Surprising Foods That Sneak In Added Sugar

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You ate a yogurt and granola for breakfast, a grilled chicken salad with balsamic vinaigrette for lunch, a protein bar as an afternoon snack, and whole-wheat pasta with tomato sauce for dinner.  

That day sounds like it deserves the healthy-eating nod of approval. But despite being packed with whole grains, veggies, and lean protein, there’s one issue: That menu easily packs in more than 50 grams of added sugar (we did the math on typical serving sizes). That’s more than double what the American Health Association recommends for women (25 grams per day) and well over the maximum recommended intake for men (37.5 grams). So even all of us *generally* healthy eaters can consume way more sugar than we thought. 

But you didn’t even eat chocolate for crying out loud, so where is all that sugar coming from?! We’re about to break it down for you.  

1. Granola

What?! It’s the epitome of healthy eating (right?). You’re probably picturing images of oats, nuts, and seeds right now. How could that possibly be unhealthy? It’s not—until heavy-handed additions get mixed in.

What to Look Out For

Look for words beyond just “sugar” on the ingredient list: Brown rice syrup, molasses, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, and rice malt syrup are other culprits. And pay attention to serving sizes. The nutrition label may say the granola only has 8 grams of sugar per serving, but if a serving size is listed as 1/4 cup (who only eats 1/4 cup?), it means you’re probably downing 16 grams. 

Brand We Love

Purely Elizabeth Gluten-Free Granola


2. Protein Bars

Chowing down on a protein bar is the smart thing to do post workout, right? Well… sometimes. We devoted a whole article to the perils of certain protein bars, but here’s the bottom line: While they can be a convenient choice for refueling hardcore workouts, many come with more sugar than a candy bar. 

What to Look Out For

Watch out for brown rice syrup, cane syrup, and cane invert syrup, which are often added to improve flavor. But also beware of sugar alcohols such as glycerin and malitol. They’re commonly used in protein bars to keep the sugar counts lower, but aren’t great for your gut.

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RXBAR

3. Cereal

There are about 20 gazillion cereals on the market, from chocolaty crispies to bran-packed flakes and gluten-free clusters. But one thing 90 percent of them have in common: They’re loaded with added sugar.

What to Look Out For

You’ll find all forms: plain sugar, malt syrup, evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, brown sugar syrup, fruit juices… the list goes on. Look out for fruity varieties like low-fat raisin bran, which can contain 17 or 18 grams of sugar per serving. 

Brand We Love
Barbara’s Puffins


4. Yogurt

Flavored yogurt is often a part of a “healthy” breakfast, and while it can provide several key nutrients such as protein, calcium, and vitamin D, many brands sneak in a ton of extra sugar, especially in those fruit-on-the-bottom or honeyed versions.  Yogurt: role in healthy and active aging. El-Abbadi NH, Dao MC, Meydani SN. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2014, Apr.;99(5 Suppl):1938-3207.

What to Look Out For

While we don’t think there’s anything wrong with the sugar that naturally occurs in fruits (fructose), all too often, added sugar is listed before the actual fruit on the ingredient list. This means there’s more of the added sweet stuff than the naturally present kind. And don’t assume that “light” yogurts are a safer bet. Many either have artificial sweeteners or get more sugar added to them to make up for the flavor that can get lost when the fat is removed. 

Brand We Love

Icelandic Provisions Skyr 

5. Bread

While it’s not so surprising that varieties like “cranberry nut” or “cinnamon swirl” or “honey nut” bread would contain sugar, it may surprise you to discover that plain whole-wheat or multigrain breads often can too.

What to Look Out For

No matter what type of bread you’re buying, look out for other sneaky sources of added sugar, such as molasses, high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, and fruit juice concentrates. Strip it down to basics: Bread is typically made with water, salt, yeast, and flour. Select a variety that comes closest to that list of ingredients; even better, look for ones with whole grains. Ideally, breads shouldn’t contain more than two grams of sugar per slice.  

Brand We Love

Ezekial Sprouted Whole Grain Bread


6. Tomato Sauce

It’s not unusual for grandma’s pasta sauce recipe to call for a bit of sugar to bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes. But the problem arises when jarred sauces turn that “bit” into a ton.

What to Look Out For

There will always be a bit of sugar in tomato-based pasta sauces because of the tomato itself, so don’t expect the nutrition label to boast zero grams of sugar. If added sugar is involved, it’ll usually appear as just that—sugar—so it’s pretty easy to spot. Try to opt for brands that contain fewer than seven grams of sugar per serving, because many jarred pasta sauces can fall anywhere between seven and 12 grams—that’s more than a serving of Lucky Charms cereal!

Brand We Love

Cucina Antica

7. Canned or Boxed Soups

From hearty black bean to chicken noodle, canned or boxed soups can be a fantastic option for those nights you’re short on time. But even these savory convenience items can come with surprising amounts of added sugar. 

What to Look Out For

Look for sugar, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, and high fructose corn syrup on the ingredient list. Certain soup flavors are likely to have more added sugars than others; the usual suspects are tomato, sweet potato, butternut squash, carrot, and some minestrone varieties. 

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Imagine Boxed Soups


8. Frozen Yogurt

It’s marketed as a healthier alternative to ice cream, but in making up for the fat and texture that make ice cream taste so good, fro-yo can be a total sugar bomb. And when you’re swirling some of the self-serve stuff into your cup, you could easily be consuming two servings at once.

What to Look Out For

You’ll find sugar appearing as corn syrup, cane sugar, fructose, malitol syrup, sucralose, and fruit concentrates. On average, frozen yogurt can contain about 17 to 25 grams of sugar per 1/2-cup serving—and that’s before even factoring in the fun flavors and toppings.

Brand We Love

Yasso Frozen Greek Yogurt Bars 

9. Nut and Seed Butters

Full of peanuts, almonds, cashews, and sunflower kernels, nut and seed butters are a super-healthy way to get in some good fats, protein, and fiber. But with so many brands on the shelves, it’s all too easy for added sugar to make its way onto that daily piece of toast.

What to Look Out For

Even “all-natural” brands can try to better their flavor with hidden sugars in the form of cane syrup, palm sugar, and dextrose. Don’t even get us started on those reduced-fat versions. Read the label and look for brands that just contain the nut or seed and maybe a touch of sea salt. You won’t need the sugar, we promise.

Brand We Love

Once Again Almond Butter


10. Salad Dressings

You’ve topped a huge pile of greens with chopped veggies, a sprinkle of nuts, and a lean protein, so you’re well on your way to a nutritious lunch. Would you want to undo that effort by drizzling it all in liquid sugar? Probably not—but that’s what many bottled salad dressings amount to. 

What to Look Out For

High fructose corn syrup is a star ingredient in many sugary dressings, along with plain old sugar and concentrate. Light or fat-free dressings often contain even more sugar in the absence of fat. Look for bottled varieties with four grams of sugar or less per serving. And do your best to stick to that two-tablespoon serving size, even though we know how hard that can be!

Brand We Love

Annie’s Balsamic

11. Oatmeal

Oatmeal might be the first food that comes to mind at the mention of a healthy breakfast. What could be dangerous about the whole-grain, high-fiber, heart-smart poster child of a virtuous diet? Turns out, a lot. While quick-cooking or regular oats are a good bet, the instant, microwavable packets or cups with added flavors should come with a warning sign. (Sugar! Sugar! Sugar!)

What to Look Out For

Brown sugar, strawberries and cream, apple cinnamon—these should be instant giveaways that there’s a lot more in those little packets than just wholesome oats. Most flavored varieties should be given a second look for added sugar. We’re not mad, because they taste good, but why not just make it yourself so you can control how much maple syrup you’re adding?

Brand We Love

Nature’s Path


12. Frozen Dinners

While it’s commonly known that frozen meals can have some pretty shocking sodium stats, they’re also just as guilty of hiding added sugars. Yes, likely even more sugar than the waffle you defrosted for breakfast.

What to Look Out For

Fruit juice concentrates, high fructose corn syrup, and dextrose are the most common sugar sources you’ll find in frozen foods. Be extra wary of barbecue-flavored dishes and Asian-inspired dinners that have teriyaki, sesame, or sweet-and-sour sauces, as they can pack in serious amounts of sugar. Look for frozen entrees that contain fewer than 10 grams per serving—added or otherwise—and take a good look at the ingredient list to make sure that, along with sugar, other weird additives such as MSG or partially hydrogenated oils aren’t included.

Brand We Love

Amy’s Burritos 

13. Protein Powders

Protein powders are pretty convenient when it comes to getting quick, efficient fuel to help replenish nutrients and improve muscle recovery. Effects of protein supplements on muscle damage, soreness and recovery of muscle function and physical performance: a systematic review. Pasiakos SM, Lieberman HR, McLellan TM. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 2014, Nov.;44(5):1179-2035.  So scoop up the powdered stuff, but look out for those sugars.

What to Look Out For

Common sugars in protein powders include sucrose, maltodextrin, fructose, and the vaguely termed “concentrate.” Don’t let artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame, and xylitol throw you off either—while they may not contain the calories that sugar sources do, they come with their own set of sketchy potential side effects.

Brand We Love

Primal Kitchen Primal Fuel


14. Sports Drinks

Because sports drinks are meant to replenish fluids and electrolytes lost during strenuous activity, a bit of sugar is actually a good thing. But way more than is necessary goes into those little bottles. 

What to Look Out For

Sugar in most sports drinks will be present as dextrose, sucrose, fructose, and maltodextrin. Some brands also opt for high fructose corn syrup as one of the main ingredients. Here’s the thing: Unless your intense exercise lasts longer than an hour, you don’t really lose electrolytes to the point where they need to be replaced via sports drink. What you absolutely do lose is water, so plain old H2O will be more effective at hydrating. If you do need to replace electrolytes and energy, we like plain and unsweetened coconut water.

Brand We Love

Harmless Harvest Coconut Water

15. Fruit Juices

Even these harmless-sounding beverages can’t be entirely trusted. Touting terms like “all-natural” and splashing the benefits of their vitamins and antioxidants all over the container, juices can make a convincing case for being healthy. But in reality, they can rank right up there with soda as far as sugar content goes.

What to Look Out For

Let’s start with the obvious: Be wary of juice mixes, punches, and other fancy-sounding fruity drinks, which contain barely a drop of real fruit and rely instead on sugary additions for sweetness and flavor. Comparison of the nutrient content of fresh fruit juices vs commercial fruit juices. Densupsoontorn N, Jirapinyo P, Thamonsiri N. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand = Chotmaihet thangphaet, 2002, Nov.;85 Suppl 2():0125-2208. Regular fruit juices can be trickier. Words like “natural flavors” can refer to flavor packs added to restore taste to juice that’s been stored in tanks, and high fructose corn syrup can be a common addition too. Keep in mind that even 100 percent and no-sugar-added juices come with plenty of natural sugars, which might be healthier but can add up fast too. 

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R.W Knudsen

The Takeaway

Next time you stock up on healthy foods for the day, keep your sugar intake in check with these tips:

1. Check the ingredient list: When sugar is listed as one of the first few ingredients, move on to the next product.

2. Don’t let the serving size fool you: It’s all well and good when there are only 8 grams of sugar per 1/4 cup, but be real with yourself… can you really only eat 1/4 cup?

3. Make it yourself: When you can, whip it up at home so you can control how much sugar is going into your batch. 

4. Live a little and enjoy your favorite foods in moderation: When you know you can’t live without your favorite sugar-filled granola, it’s OK to dive in every once in a while (maybe just keep that 1/4 cup in mind). 



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