You might think that cutting out sugar would be a breeze. After all, it's no secret that foods such as soda and doughnuts are packed with added sweeteners. But would you think that the frozen stir-fry dinner you had last night would have the same amount of sugars as 16 gummi bears? Or that whole-wheat bread can have almost a teaspoon of sugars per slice? These days, food companies toss added sugars into almost three-quarters of all packaged products, including nutritious-sounding items such as instant oatmeal and peanut butter and ­even foods that aren’t supposed to be sweet, like tomato sauce and crackers. 

The trouble with sneaky sugars may go beyond excess calories. When 43 obese children ate the same amount of calories but decreased their added sugars intake from 28 percent of their daily calories to 10 percent for 9 days, their weight stayed steady but their cholesterol, triglyceride, blood pressure, and fasting blood sugar and insulin levels dropped, according to a study in the journal Obesity. The study needs to be replicated with a larger test group and with older people, but there’s no apparent reason that adults would respond differently, says Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a member of the Institute of Medicine panel that made dietary guidelines recommendations to the federal government for sugars and carbohydrates. 

Previous research has linked an overload of added sugar with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. For example, a recent study found that people who got 17 to 21 percent of their calories from added sugars had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who kept their intake of sugars to 8 percent.

Natural vs. Added Sugars

But how do foods that naturally contain sugars, such as fruit, milk, and “sweeter” veggies like sweet potatoes or beets, affect our health? “The sugars found in dairy and fruit come in smaller doses and are packaged with fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, which means they don’t affect your blood sugar as drastically,” Johnson says. But added sugars are what some experts refer to as “empty calories” because they lack nutrients. 

Become a Sugar Sleuth

Cutting out sugar, then, seems simple enough: Avoid those foods that have lots of sugars added to them. But it’s not easy. The current version of the Nutrition Facts label lumps added and naturally occurring sugars together under “total sugars.”

As a result, “Consumers have no way of knowing how much added sugars are in a food,” Johnson says. “For other nutrients, the Nutrition Facts label lists the percentage of the daily intake a serving of a food supplies, but that’s not the case for sugars.”

The FDA is also recommending that no more than 10 percent of our daily calories come from added sugar. That’s 45 grams, or about 11 teaspoons for someone on an 1,800-calorie diet. (A teaspoon is equal to about 4 grams.) About 70 percent of adults get that and more every day. The American Heart Association suggests an even lower limit: 24 grams for women (about 6 teaspoons) and 36 grams (about 9 teaspoons) for men. Until food labels change, use these tips for cutting out sugar:

  • Consider the food. If a product doesn’t contain fruit, milk, sweet veggies, or yogurt, and more than 3 grams is listed in the total sugars column, you can assume that most of the sugars are added.
  • Know the code words for sugar. Ingredients on the list that end in “ose”—fructose, maltose, sucrose—are added sugars (the main exception is the artificial sweetener sucralose). But food labels have a variety of terms for sugars (see Sugar's Many Names, below). And don’t be fooled—healthier-sounding sugars such as brown rice syrup or honey aren’t any better for you than other types.
  • Scan the entire ingredients list. Ingredients are listed in order of weight; the higher up a substance is, the more of it the food contains. But many manufacturers use more than one type of sugar in a product. They are allowed to list them separately, which may give the impression that a food has less sugars than it really does.
  • Compare nutrition labels. Find the “plain” version of foods such as yogurt or oatmeal and compare the Nutrition Facts label against the same brand’s sweetened versions. “The difference in the amount of sugars between the two products is added sugars,” Johnson says. Here’s another sweet tip: Buy plain or regular versions and add fresh fruit for sweetness instead of buying foods that are presweetened.

Sugar's Many Names

Dozens of types of sugars can be found on ingredients lists. Here, some of the more common types to look for.

Agave NectarFructose
Agave SyrupFruit Juice Concentrate
Barley MaltGlucose
Beet SugarHigh Fructose Corn Syrup
Brown Rice SyrupHoney
Brown SugarInvert Sugar Syrup
Cane Juice SolidsMalt Syrup
Cane SugarMaltodextrin
Coconut SugarMaple Syrup
Corn SweetenerMolasses
Corn SyrupSorghum Syrup
Date SugarSucrose
Evaporated Cane Juice