Sugar is so detrimental to our bodies, that it has earned the nickname “white death”. The evidence for its exceptionally harmful effects has been piling up for many years now.
Eating too many foods with high sugar content has been linked to an increased risk of many diseases, including obesity1, metabolic syndrome2, cancers3, type 2 diabetes4, as well as heart disease, hypertension and other cardiovascular conditions5.
So how much is too much?
The British Dietetic Association recommends that sugars should account for no more than five percent of our daily energy intake. This is equivalent to around 30g or seven sugar cubes7. It may sound like a lot, but in fact, it’s very easy to go above and beyond your recommended daily intake.
One of the reasons is that many foods contain a variety of hidden sugars, including some foods that you wouldn’t even consider to be sweet.
In fact, even certain products marketed as ‘light’, ‘diet’, ‘low calorie’ or ‘low fat’ often contain more sugar than their regular counterparts.
Sugar doesn’t only add sweetness and flavour, but it also plays multiple important roles in food production and distribution that are useful for manufacturers.
- It can add texture, colour, thickness and consistency to many food products.
- In addition, sugar helps to prolong the shelf life of many items on our supermarket shelves.
- It’s also relatively cheap compared to other ingredients with similar properties 8, 9.
Many food brands are aware that highlighting the sugar content on the packaging may be quite off-putting. That’s why they may try to draw your attention to other health claims instead – and if you don’t know much about nutrition, you may easily fall for these marketing gimmicks10.
But don’t worry! In this post, we are going to list the most common foods with high sugar content that tend to be marketed as healthy products.
1. Low-fat flavoured yoghurts
Yoghurt is a tasty nutritious snack that can be highly beneficial to our bones, digestive health and immune system. Not only it enriches our diet with protein and calcium – it is also a great source of friendly gut bacteria that are essential to our well-being11. However, not all yoghurt is created equal.
Like many other low-fat products, low-fat flavoured yoghurts may have sugar added to them to increase sweetness and improve thickness.
Besides, low-fat yoghurt may not be as nutritious or healthy as full-fat yoghurt anyway12.
To ensure that you get all the benefits of yoghurt, choose full fat, natural, or Greek yoghurt. Always check whether your yoghurt has any added sugars. To add some flavour, top it up with some fresh fruit or sprinkle it with some tasty nuts or seeds.
2. Instant porridge
Not sure what to make for breakfast? Classic porridge is one of the best ways to start your day right. However, flavoured oats are a worthwhile entry into this list of foods with high sugars.
Porridge in its purest form – whole oats – is an amazing source of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Moreover, it has been shown to lower blood pressure, regulate blood glucose levels and improve cholesterol profile13.
But when it’s processed and portioned into convenient single-serve packets, it’s often rich in added sugar.
Also, if you like to eat your porridge with toppings such as dried fruit, honey or sugar-based syrups, you may actually end up exceeding that daily recommendation before you’re done eating your breakfast.
What’s more, instant porridge has been shown to have far worse effects on glucose levels than similar regular porridge14.
Try waking up a few minutes earlier than usual and prepare your porridge from scratch – your body will thank you for it!
3. Bottled smoothies
Blending fruits and vegetables with ingredients such as milk, yogurt, protein powders or water can be a great way to ensure you get your 5-a-day 15. However, not all smoothies are healthy, especially when they are commercially produced.
Many shop-bought smoothies come in large bottles and can be sweetened with ingredients like concentrated fruit juice or sugar-based syrups. This practice extends their shelf life and improves their flavour, but it also greatly increases their sugar content.
Invest in a good blender and prepare your smoothies from scratch at home – not only can you pick and mix any flavours you like, but you’ll also have a fresh nutritious smoothie at the flick of a switch!
4. Granola and granola bars
Granola tends to be marketed as a healthier substitute for breakfast cereals, despite usually having more calories and a higher proportion of sugars and simple carbohydrates.
In recent years, food brands have also started promoting granola-based breakfast bars as highly nutritious and convenient snacks on the go.
Just like in porridge, the main ingredient in granola is rolled oats. Pure oats can be an amazing source of fibre, vitamins and minerals. Moreover, they have been shown to lower blood pressure, regulate blood glucose levels and improve cholesterol profile13.
However, the oats in granola are usually combined with nuts, honey, chocolate, raisins, maple syrup and/or other added sweeteners and toppings, which vastly increases the overall amount of sugar and calories.
If you can’t imagine your breakfast without a portion of granola, try choosing one with less added sugar or consider making your own. For on-the-go breakfasts, choose protein bars from renowned fitness food brands – they usually contain more than 15g of protein and less than 3g of sugar per bar.
5. Canned and boxed soups
Soup is definitely not on anyone’s mind when discussing the most common foods with high sugar content. And for the right reasons. When soups are made with fresh whole ingredients, they tend to be a perfect choice for people who want to lose weight, take care of their health and increase their vegetable consumption without much effort.
The vegetables in soups may have naturally occurring sugars, but they are usually present in very small amounts. Besides, the versatile health benefits that come from eating vegetables far outweigh any concerns regarding their sugar content15.
However, the situation changes dramatically when we discuss many commercially prepared soups that tend to be sold in supermarkets in cans or cardboard boxes. Many of these products are enriched with sucrose, dextrose, barley malt, maltose and/or high-fructose corn syrup – substances that tend to break down into sugars easily when ingested.
If you don’t have the time or resources to cook your own soup, make sure that you choose products branded as low sugar, or opt for freshly made soups in your local healthy food outlets.
6. Breakfast cereals
For many of us, eating breakfast cereal is a trip down memory lane. Tasty, crunchy, with multiple different flavours to suit all tastes and preferences – they provided us with energy for the day ahead while satisfying our sweet tooth at the same time. However, despite all the health claims displayed on the colourful packaging, breakfast cereals have a reputation for being foods with a high sugar content 16, 17, 18.
And the situation doesn’t look any better when looking into ‘healthier’ alternatives either.
So what to do if we want to revive our childhood memories without overdosing on sugar? Choose cereals that are high in fibre and don’t contain any added sugar, such as Swiss-style muesli or bran flakes (around 4g of sugar per 30g serving), and top them up with unsweetened milk or Greek-style yoghurt.
7. Canned baked beans
Beans and lentils contain a wide range of nutrients that are highly beneficial to our health and well-being. They also tend to provide a great deal of protein to people who do not want to eat animal-based products. What’s more, beans and lentils have been shown to improve cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of cancer, regulate glucose metabolism, and lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol 19, 20.
When you think of foods with high sugar, baked beans are perhaps quite far on your list.
However, one of the most popular and the most available forms of beans on the market are canned baked beans in tomato sauce. To ensure a longer shelf life as well as better consistency and increased palatability, they tend to contain way more sugars than you’d expect if you cooked them from scratch at home.
If you can’t imagine your Sunday fry-up without a portion of baked beans, don’t worry. More and more brands are offering low sugar versions of their popular staples. They tend to provide about half the amount of sugar found in regular baked beans – and they still have a great taste!
8. Dried fruit
Fruits provide a wide range of health benefits, whilst not compromising on the sweet taste. Not only do they contain fibre, vitamins and minerals, but also highly specific phytonutrients that you simply can’t find anywhere else15.
There’s a catch though – they do not tend to last very long. Dried fruit may sound like a great alternative to fresh fruit as they have a much longer shelf life and they will not get messy in your backpack.
Surely dried fruits can’t be on a list of foods with high sugar.
However, these chewy sweet pieces are far from the fibre-rich fruit we know.
In fact, these snacks are closer to processed sugary sweets than their original form. That’s because, without water, the sugars become more concentrated in the dried fruit. What’s more, plenty of manufacturers resort to coating them with even more sugar to increase their sweetness and durability even further21.
To make sure that you don’t go above and beyond your daily sugar allowance, always choose dried fruit without any added sugars or opt for fresh fruits that are easy to store, such as oranges, satsumas, apples, pears or plums.
9. Nut butter mixes
A handy packet of nuts is a highly nutritious snack that can do wonders for our skin, brain and nervous system. Not only does it enrich our diet with a hefty dose of protein and ‘good’ fats, but it is also a great source of vitamins and minerals. Nuts may even have the power to prevent cognitive decline and fight cancer! 22, 23.
When it comes to foods with high sugar, nut butter and nut butter mixes are perhaps some of the worst offenders.
It may be your go-to choice when you need a quick sandwich, but surprisingly, many nut butter products contain a significant amount of sugar. Particularly when it’s flavoured with honey, cinnamon, or even chocolate.
But even certain peanut butters marketed as healthy can have a load of added sugar in them – always read the label to check whether your favourite spread is made entirely of nuts, or whether the producer added something extra.
Also, how about making your own nut butter? Plenty of recipes can be found online and all you need is a good blender!
10. Wholegrain bagels
It’s really hard to understate the importance of wholegrain foods in our diet. They have an impressive scope of health benefits – whole grains make a huge difference to our cardiovascular health, digestion, blood glucose regulation and metabolism, to name just a few roles in the human body 24, 25.
Food producers know very well how much we cherish and seek food items branded with this particular term. It’s worth remembering though, that not necessarily every whole grain food product is actually good for us.
Bagels are a perfect example of foods with high sugar. As they are made mostly for toasting, they have to behave well in high temperatures. More often than not, to produce the desired texture, consistency and flavour, bread companies add sugar to their supposedly healthy bagels.
To avoid any unwanted sugar, choose bakery items that are not meant for toasting or heating. Also, try shopping locally – that bakery around the corner may sell some really tasty treats!
How can the ElevateMe Health App help you avoid foods with high sugar?
Sugar is everywhere – it has many faces, forms and names. Even despite your best efforts, it can be really tricky to identify foods with high sugar content.
Food producers are getting better and better at marketing their food to a health-conscious consumer. They also know exactly how to disguise sugar-based ingredients in their products so even a very savvy shopper can get easily tricked.
So how do you navigate this minefield of modern food shopping? How can we improve the state of our health and our daily performance?
Don’t worry, we’re here to help you do exactly that.
The ElevateMe home blood test kit tests for 21 blood markers, including an HbA1c test to check your glucose levels.
Additionally, with our health app, you’ll also get a personalised action plan that will help you get your glucose levels under control. This action plan also comes with a curated marketplace that selects the highest quality foods and supplements for you.
Did you know?
According to the NHS, adults in the UK consume around 700gm of sugar a week. That’s a whopping 36 kilograms of sugar consumed by the average adult every year.26
Take an ElevateMe blood test today and get a customised health plan across lifestyle, nutrition, and supplements.