On Your Health

Check back to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog for the latest health and wellness news for all Oklahomans.

Sneaky Sources of Added Sugar

There’s a common misconception that sugar is only present in foods known for being sweet – sugary drinks, desserts and candy. Yes, these are the obvious culprits. But what about the ketchup you dunk your fries in, the dressing you generously drizzle on your salad or the bread you use for sandwiches?

None of these foods sound particularly bad for you, but they all have added sugars that can quickly bog down your daily caloric intake. Although organizations such as the American Heart Association and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend limiting your sugar intake, Americans still consume about 17 teaspoons of added sugars (272 calories) per day. To help keep these sugars from impacting your health or waistline, we highlighted nearly a dozen different food products that have a surprisingly high amount of added sugars.


Is sugar bad for you?

When you hear the word sugar, tasty sweets, desserts and sugary drinks tend to come to mind. These are known as added sugars. You can also consume sugars naturally by eating fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

These foods contain carbohydrates. During the digestion process, starches convert to sugar known as glucose. Glucose enters your bloodstream and serves as the body’s main fuel source. Put simply, you need sugar – as long as you receive it from the right sources.

Eating foods with too many added sugars can cause insulin resistance in which your body doesn’t respond to insulin. This causes a domino of events that leads to high blood sugar. When too much glucose enters the bloodstream, the pancreas is hard at work to pump out insulin – a hormone that helps cells and tissues use and store glucose – so the blood sugar has somewhere to go. 

Over time, cells become resistant to the excess insulin, and blood sugar levels continue to rise. This resistance can lead to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Meanwhile, the pancreas continues to make insulin and send excess blood sugar to the liver and muscles. The liver can only hold so much glucose, and the remaining ends up in fat cells and leads to weight gain.

In addition, there’s also a psychological effect with sugar. When digested, sugar releases dopamine, a chemical that controls how you perceive pleasure. It can also increase serotonin production, which can boost your mood. For these reasons, sugar is often viewed as addicting.


What is added sugar?

As the name implies, added sugars are added to foods during the manufacturing process. Examples include adding sugar to baked goods or to tea to make sweet tea.

Most of the sugar Americans consume comes from sucrose, a combination of glucose and fructose more commonly known as table sugar. Food labels are still confusing, though, primarily due to food manufacturers attempting to be covert about added sugars. In other words, foods can still contain added sugars even if they don’t list the word “sugar.”

Here are some common types of added sugars found on food labels:

  • Processed sugar molecules – fructose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose
  • Syrups – Rice syrup, maple syrup, corn syrup, brown rice syrup
  • Natural sweeteners – Honey, molasses, agave
  • Processed fruit sugars – Fruit concentrates, fruit nectars (peach nectar, pear nectar), cane juice 

Sugars should account for no more than 10 percent of your daily caloric intake, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For the average person on a 2,000-calorie diet, that amounts to 200 calories or 12 teaspoons of sugar. Added sugars can mount up quickly. For example, a 12-ounce can of soda can have as many as 10 teaspoons of sugar. That’s almost all of your recommended added sugar in one sitting!


Natural sugar vs. added sugar

If you’ve ever taken a bite of a strawberry or eaten fresh corn in the summer, the sweetness your taste buds pick up on is known as natural sugar. The most common natural sugars include fructose (fruit sugar), lactose (milk sugar) and maltose (found in germinating grains).

Sugar is sugar, even if it occurs naturally, right? Yes, but context matters. Once sugar enters your body, the digestive system views natural sugars and added sugars the same and processes them as such.

So, yes, while certain fruits and vegetables have high sugar contents, they also contain fiber, vitamins and minerals. The structural complexity of these foods result in a slower digestive process – as opposed to a quick release of glucose – that leave you feeling full longer. Thus, you don’t need to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables before being satisfied, which keeps the amount of sugar consumed in check.

Added sugars, on the other hand, contain no nutrients or dietary benefits to slow down digestion. This is why they’re commonly referred to as empty calories – there’s a reason you can eat a half dozen cookies full of sugar and not feel satisfied.


Foods with sneaky sources of sugar

Foods with added sugars

A few added grams of sugar may not seem like much, but it can add up quickly because there are four calories in a gram. Be aware of these hidden sugars at your next meal!


Ketchup, salad dressings and barbecue sauce are the biggest offenders here. In each case, sugar is added during the manufacturing process for flavor and balance. Think of it this way: Vinegar is one of the primary ingredients in ketchup, dressings and barbecue sauce, and sweetness is one way to keep acidity from being too overpowering. 

A tablespoon of any of these condiments can have several grams of sugar, which can add a teaspoon or more of sugar when eating a burger and fries. Look for condiments with low sugar or no added sugar.


Despite the long list of ingredients listed on packaged bread, it only takes three simple ingredients to make – flour, water and a leavening agent (natural sourdough starter or yeast). But, like many packaged goods, sugars and salt are added to breads to improve their flavor. 

And yes, this applies to both white and white bread. In fact, making a sandwich with two slices of whole wheat bread adds 6 grams of sugar to your meal. Be careful of the labels, too, as some organic breads may seem good for you, but the addition of cane sugar and molasses adds up to 8 grams of sugar for two slices.

Fat-free products

Fat-free and low-fat products are some of the guiltiest offenders when it comes to added sugar. Fat equals flavor, so food manufacturers need to impart more flavor when they take the fat out of their products. The solution? Add sugar to improve the taste. For example, a cup of nonfat yogurt has 18 grams of added sugars.

Marinara sauce

Depending on the brand, a ½ cup of store-bought marinara sauce contains up to 4 to 5 grams of added sugars. Manufacturers add sugar to tone down the acidity from the tomatoes. However, tomatoes have enough natural sugars on their own to provide sweetness. When shopping, search for brands with low sugar or no added sugar. Not all brands of tomato sauce are guilty of adding sugar, so be sure to check the labels. 


Dairy products alone have natural sugars from lactose. On top of that, many yogurt brands add sugar to improve taste – just ⅔ cup of vanilla yogurt has 17 grams of added sugars. Your best bet is to choose unsweetened whole milk yogurt. 


Between added sugars from pizza dough and marinara sauce, a single slice of pizza can contain several grams of sugar. The amount of added sugar can creep even higher if the pizza contains pepperoni or sausage. These processed meats often have sugar added during the manufacturing process.

Peanut butter

In theory, peanut butter should have one ingredient – dry roasted peanuts (perhaps with added sea salt). The reality is many commercial jars of peanut butter contain several grams of sugar to improve the flavor. Be wary of any brands with the words “high fructose corn syrup” or any type of sugar alternative in the ingredient list.

Breakfast cereals

The obvious sources of added sugars are the sugary cereals children love to eat. But even so-called healthier options such as raisin bran (9 grams added sugars per cup) or bran flakes (6 grams added sugars per cup) have added sugars that can sneak up on you. Plain oatmeal is a healthier breakfast alternative. You can even sprinkle in fresh fruit, such as strawberries, for natural sweetness.

Dried fruit

While it seems harmless, many types of dried fruits contain added sugars to make them taste better. Dried cranberries are a perfect example. They’re too tart on their own, so sugar is added to make them more palatable. Dehydrating fruit also removes moisture, making each fruit piece smaller than fresh fruit. This makes it easy to overeat and increase your sugar intake.

Canned fruit

Again, what could be so bad about fruit in a can? Most canned fruit is packed in high fructose corn syrup, which helps preserve the fruit and give it more flavor. Fresh fruit is always the best option when available. In the winter months, look for frozen fruit in your grocery store’s freezer section.


For more trending topics and to stay up to date with the latest health news, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.


Is Maple Syrup Better than Sugar?

Are Your Healthy Snacks Actually Junk Food?

How to Break a Sugar Addiction