While putting together the meal plans for The HEAL Sugar-Free Program it occurred to me how many ingredients we would have to specify as “unsweetened” or “sugar-free”. It’s also something that I’m reminded of after nearly every visit to the grocery store while shopping for simple things like tomato sauce or even chicken broth.
To simplify this process, I’ve put together this list of 24 foods and drinks that either have a surprising amount of sugar or to be careful of added sugar. I’m sure there’s at least one food in here that will surprise even the most veteran health food shopper. For me, it was chicken broth! If there’s any less obvious ones that I’ve forgotten, please share in the comments below.
1. Tomato sauce
Often, sugar is one of the primary ingredients in tomato sauce. It is definitely possible to buy it without so you’ll want to read the labels for this one.
In some grocery stores, I have searched high and low and couldn’t find a single salsa without added sugar. Your best bet is to look for standard flavours like mild, medium or hot from organic brands.
3. Barbecue sauce
Barbecue sauces tend to be a bit sweet so this may not be that surprising. But what is surprising is just how much sugar there is in a small amount of sauce (roughly 10g/2 tbsp). Making your own barbecue sauce sounds tedious but if it’s something you use regularly, I recommend giving it try. The healthier recipes usually contain maple syrup with is a better alternative and you can reduce the amount if you’re trying to cut back.
Granola is one of those foods we like to think are healthy, but the reality is that most of them aren’t any better than sugary breakfast cereals. Often two of the first five ingredients are sugar and if they have dried fruit, chances are they were also made with added sugar. My recommendation is to limit granola consumption overall and thing of it like a treat, keep portions small, and either carefully read the label or make your own.
Added sugar aside, cereal is pretty much just straight carbs which is a recipe for energy crashes and cravings throughout the day. I really recommend smoothies, oatmeal with some nuts and seeds or eggs instead.
6. Protein bars
Many protein bars are comparable to chocolate bars. Unfortunately, eating too many of the low sugar ones sweetened with sugar alcohols isn't that much better. The problem is that sugar alcohols are incompletely broken down in your digestive tract and can ferment, leading to gas, bloating and digestive issues. I recommend that protein bars be used as a last resort when you don’t have immediate access to a healthy snack or meal, and choose ones with real food ingredients you can pronounce and higher protein than sugar.
This one may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people still think juice is a better choice than pop. The reality is that juices are just a concentrated form of sugar without any fiber, which can send your blood sugar (i.e. mood, energy, weight) on a roller coaster. Unless it’s a raw green juice, I would skip it.
I recently spoke to someone who confessed that their pre-workout is likely the unhealthiest thing they consume. This struck me as a bit odd, considering it’s used to fuel a workout, which is supposed to be a healthy habit. If you really need a boost I recommend a cleaner product like Vega Sport Sugar-free Energizer.
9. Fancy coffee drinks
Chai lattes, matcha lattes, iced coffees and other blended coffee drinks, unless you specifically ask, have a crazy amount of added sugar. Even the almond, soy and coconut milk in fancy coffee shops is sweetened because the sugar helps these milks froth better. As an example, a Starbucks Grande Iced Coffee with Coconut Milk contains 23g of sugar! Always specify unsweetened and ask to see the label on the nut milk.
Smoothies can be an excellent high protein, satisfying breakfast for those of you on the go but most people put way too much fruit and not enough protein and healthy fats. I recommend no more than ½-1 cup of fruit per smoothie, balanced by at least 20g of protein and a tablespoon or two of fats. Be mindful of smoothies you get from the bar at your gym, where you may not know the type of protein powder or add-ins they’re using.
11. Chocolate milk
I’ll never forget when my parents started letting us drink chocolate milk. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! In University it became my go-to for a quick ‘healthy’ snack. What I now know is that chocolate milk has on average of 24g of sugar per cup and should be viewed as an occasional treat (though at those numbers, I'd choose ice cream instead) and not really a health food.
12. Flavoured or low-fat dairy products
A general rule of thumb when buying dairy products, including yogurt, kefir and frozen yogurt, is to look for plain or unsweetened. When products are low-fat, the fat is generally replaced with sugar and other sweeteners to enhance the flavour.
13. Non-dairy milks
If you’re new to non-dairy milks you may not notice that there’s a sweetened and unsweetened kind. Be sure to always grab the unsweetened one and ask if the nut milk your coffee shop uses is sweetened or not.
14. Canned and packaged soups
These generally either have added sugar in the soup or the broth the soup is made with had added sugar, which will be listed on the label for you to check.
15. Soup broths and stocks
I discovered this one at a recent trip to the grocery store to find a veggie broth for a soup recipe. Low and behold not one of the brands, even the Organic ones, was free of added sugar!
16. Dried fruit
Dried fruit is another common hidden source of sugars. Be mindful when buying granolas or trail mix with dried fruit as they generally have the sweetened ones.
17. Packaged or frozen pancakes and waffles
Even though you’re about to douse these in maple syrup, food producers love a chance to sneak in more sugar. Making your own healthier version is actually really easy, like these 4 Ingredient Paleo Pancakes.
18. ‘Healthy’ frozen entrees
Frozen entrees like Lean Cuisine of Healthy Choice are generally low in fat but full of added sugars. These meals aren't great nutritionally and will also leave you hungry in just a few hours.
Always look for unsweetened. It's sweet enough without extra sugar.
20. Salad dressings
Even many of the ones labelled low fat have simply replaced the fat with sugars for flavour. The thing is, good fats help keep you full longer and provide you with a more sustainable form of energy. If you don’t make your own, some great healthy options for store-bought dressings are Mother Raw, Primal Kitchen and Chosen Foods.
21. Granola bars
Many granola bars are just chocolate bars in disguise. A good rule of thumb for snacks is to choose something with a greater protein content than sugar and ideally minimal added sugars. I also have A Healthy Granola Bar recipe if you’d like to make your own.
22. ‘Healthy’ drinks
Aloe juice drinks, cold herbal tea drinks (eg. Pure Leaf Tea), Vitamin Water and other ‘health drinks’ are a major source of added sugar. It sounds cliche but just stick to lemon water or make a big batch of herbal tea and keep it in the fridge if you really don’t like the taste of plain water.
23. Bran muffins and oatmeal cookies
Some whole grain products actually have more sugar than their white flour counterparts in order to improve their taste. If you’re someone who regularly grabs a blueberry bran muffin or granola cookie with their coffee for a ‘healthier’ option, keep in mind these things can add up.
24. Store-bought bread
This is another one that may surprise you but a lot of bread has added sugar. As an example, the third ingredient in Dempster’s whole-wheat bread is sugar!