The Not-So-Sweet Truth About Hidden Sugars

Cookies, cakes, chocolate, ice cream, candy, soda…

Everyone knows what these foods have in common: the dreaded “sugar.” It can rot your teeth, make you tired, and cause weight gain. Even juice has a bad reputation these days for its high sugar content and link to childhood obesity. Nutrition experts, politicians and talk show hosts have all raised public awareness about the damage sugar can do.

But what about the less obvious culprits?  Food companies have realized sugar makes food taste good, and if it tastes good, people will buy it. It’s not just the “unhealthy” foods you’d suspect though. There are a slew of “healthy” foods – some of which are probably in your kitchen right now – that contain added sugar in levels that rival a glazed donut.

As a reference, one teaspoon of granulated sugar is equal to 4 grams of sugar. The Nutrition Facts Label on food packaging includes natural sugars, such as those found in fruit (fructose) and dairy products (lactose), so make sure to check the ingredients list for added sugars.

Here Are Five Foods to Watch


Yogurt is thought of as the ultimate go-to health food, but a single 6-ounce serving can contain up to 25 grams of sugar. While the lactose contributes some natural sugar to yogurt, the added sugar equals what you would find in 3 Oreos!

Tips for avoiding sugar:
• Opt for plain yogurt, which contains only natural sugar from milk. Add fresh or frozen fruit for a sweet kick.
• If plain yogurt isn’t your thing, go for the light or lower sugar varieties. Look closely at the ingredient list and choose products with little to no added sugar.

Instant Oatmeal

Oatmeal is an excellent option for breakfast, but the flavored packets can contain up to 12 grams (3 teaspoons) of added sugar each. This leaves less room for the good stuff like protein and fiber.

Tips for avoiding sugar:
• Make your own oatmeal. Oats are naturally sugar-free, and instant whole oats can be just as fast to make as the packets.
• Use the plain or reduced sugar packets of oatmeal, which contain 1/3 to ½ the amount of added sugar compared to regular versions.
• Add fresh fruit such as diced apples, bananas or blueberries, or mix in dried fruit such as cranberries or raisins.

Pasta Sauce

Pasta is generally considered a savory food, but ½ cup of store-bought spaghetti sauce can add up to 12 grams (3 teaspoons) of sugar to your dinner. Some of this is due to natural sugar in tomatoes, but there’s no reason to have any sugar added to your sauce!

Tips for avoiding sugar:
• Make your own sauce with fresh or canned tomatoes, herbs, spices and other vegetables.
• Look for a label that says “No Sugar Added” on store-bought pasta sauces.

Sports Drinks

Sports drinks are marketed for rehydrating after activity, but one 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade can contain 35 grams (9 teaspoons) of sugar. Even Vitamin Water rings in at 32 grams per bottle.

Tips for avoiding sugar:
• Choose water! Unless you are exercising for 90 minutes or more, the sugar and electrolytes in sports drinks are unnecessary.
• Add a squeeze of lemon or a splash of fruit juice to plain or soda water for extra flavor.

Coffee Drinks

It’s obvious how much sugar you add to coffee when you scoop it from the sugar bowl. But specialty coffee drinks can contain 35 to 60 grams (9 to 15 teaspoons) of sugar in a 16-ounce (or medium-sized) serving!

Tips for avoiding sugar:
• Drink black or unsweetened coffee.
• Avoid coffees flavored with pumps of syrup.
• Add low fat, soy or almond milk instead of flavored creamers: 1 ounce of vanilla creamer adds 18 grams of sugar to your drink!

The best way to make sure that added sugars are not sneaking into the foods you eat is to check the ingredients list on food packaging.

These are all types of added sugar:
Brown sugar syrup, brown rice syrup, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, beet sugar, barley malt syrup, molasses, and honey.

If sugar or syrup (even if it is organic or comes from something natural-sounding like brown rice or beets) is one of the first few ingredients, opt for a lower sugar or sugar-free alternative.

About the author:
Ashley Carter is a dietetic intern at MGH, completing her year-long residency for nutrition. She completed her Master’s degree in Nutrition Communications at Tufts University in 2012. Ashley has spent time coaching elite high school and college ski racers, working with athletes to maximize their performance through nutrition. She has also worked in the Boston Public School system to address childhood obesity and wellness.

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Our Be Fit Nutritionists are comprised of dietetic interns studying at Massachusetts General Hospital. During their internship, they receive training on acute care nutrition, ambulatory and community nutrition, food service systems management, and research. Their comprehensive work is done in collaboration with registered dietitians.

One Response to “The Not-So-Sweet Truth About Hidden Sugars”

  1. James Quirk says: