4 Tricks To Identify Hidden Sugars in Your Foods

Sugar is one of the most harmful nutrients in our diet. Eating too much of it increases the risk of obesity1, metabolic syndrome2, cancers3, type 2 diabetes4, as well as hypertension and other cardiovascular conditions. 

Moderate sugar intake is unlikely to cause any significant damage. In fact, our bodies will use it

  • to power up our brains
  • to ensure smooth functioning of our nervous system
  • for red blood cells production6.

Fruit and vegetables naturally contain a little sugar. But they are also excellent sources of dietary fibre, vitamins, and minerals. As such, they are healthy7.

The negative health effects of sugar consumption are mostly due to the high amounts of added hidden sugars in processed foods. These sugars digest more rapidly, intensifying their ill effects on our health8.    

What’s more, it’s very easy to go above and beyond the recommended intake of 30g of sugar a day9

Part of the reason is that food producers routinely try to distort your sense of how much sugar you’re actually consuming. Many brands are aware that highlighting the sugar content on the packaging may be quite off-putting.

That’s why they use a variety of different strategies to “hide” the actual sugar content of their foods. And if you don’t know much about nutrition, you may easily fall for these marketing gimmicks10

But do not worry! In this post, we are going to list the most common ways the food industry uses to trick you into eating more sugar than you would wish to.  

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1. Know these added sugars

It is the law – all manufacturers need to provide nutritional information on pre-packaged foods and drinks found on British supermarket shelves.

You will find this information on the food label, placed either on the front or back of the pack. Among other things, the label will specifically state the total amount of sugar the item contains.

Familiarise yourself with the traffic light nutrition label found on most British packaged foods.

However, you will not be able to find a separate value for added sugars. It is very tricky to accurately distinguish added sugars from naturally occurring equivalents as they are the same molecules. 

So what is the solution?

There are more than 60 different names for added sugar and it can be tricky to remember them all. However, there are some clues that can indicate whether a particular ingredient is an added sugar:

  • In the ingredients list, all ingredients are shown in the order of their weight in the product.
  • The fairly obvious one is to look for different types of sugars (table sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar or powdered sugar).
  • Anything referred to as syrup, nectar or fruit juice concentrate (for example, corn syrup, carob syrup or agave nectar).
  • Ingredients with names that end in ‘ose’ (for example, glucose, fructose, maltose or dextrose)

Here is a handy list of some possible hidden sugars:

  • Sucrose (This is basically table sugar – 50% glucose and 50% fructose)
  • Barley Malt
  • Blackstrap molasses 
  • Cane juice crystals
  • Caramel
  • Corn sweetener
  • Crystalline fructose
  • Dextran
  • Dextrin
  • Diastatic malt
  • Ethyl maltol
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Florida Crystals
  • Malt powder
  • Maltodextrin
  • Molasses
  • Panela
  • Rapadura
  • Raw Sugar
  • Sucanat

No sugar, added or natural, is inherently bad for our health and well-being8. However, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can be a dangerous type and must be avoided. It is produced from highly processed corn starches11. It is fairly common and you can find it in a wide range of processed foods.

HFCSs consist predominantly of fructose, which in our bodies is metabolised in a slightly different way than glucose or other sugars 12, 13. It can lead to obesity, type-2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular conditions 14, 15, 16, 17. If high fructose corn syrups are added to liquid foods, they are absorbed and digested much faster. As such, it is widely believed that fizzy drinks sweetened with HFCs have vastly contributed to the worldwide obesity epidemic 17, 18.   

2. Know these sugar alternatives to be aware of the total sugar in your food

One of the most common strategies employed by food brands to make their products appear harmless is by swapping sugar for an alternative sweetener that’s “healthier”.

These are usually unrefined sweeteners made from fruit, flowers, seeds or sap. Typical examples include agave nectar, honey, and coconut sugar. They are routinely added to many “healthy foods”, such as fruit bars, cereal bars, dairy products and table sauces.

Even though some of these sugar alternatives may be healthier, they can still increase your daily sugar consumption. Thus, it’s important to be aware of them.  

Products with these sweeteners may often feature labels with slightly misleading claims like “contains no refined sugar” or “refined sugar-free.” This simply means that they don’t contain table sugar. However, they may contain these other hidden sources of sugar.

unhealthy protein bar with hidden sugars
This protein snack has brown rice syrup as its main ingredient. It is very easy to gloss over that ingredient if you are not looking for it.

To stop yourself from accidentally eating too much sugar, look out for these names on food labels:

  • Agave nectar or agave syrup
  • Birch syrup
  • Cane sugar
  • Carob syrup
  • Coconut sugar
  • Golden syrup
  • Honey
  • Malt syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Oat syrup
  • Rice bran syrup
  • Rice syrup

3. Are there way too many types of sugars listed? 

Another common strategy employed by food brands is to use several different types of sugars. On food labels, ingredients are listed by weight. The more of one item, the higher up on the list it appears.

In order to make their foods and drinks appear healthier, a lot of companies use smaller amounts of three or four types of sweeteners in a single product. These sugars then appear further down on the ingredients list, making a product look low in sugar — when, in fact, sugar is one of the major ingredients.

4. Check the the portion size

Companies can also sneakily lower the recommended portion size of a product.

They do this in order to distort your sense of how much sugar you’re consuming. In other words, a single product that you tend to consume in one go, such as a packet of crisps or a bottle of a fizzy drink, may be composed of several servings. These smaller servings are used to falsely project the product as healthy.

To avoid eating more sugar than you would otherwise intend to, carefully examine the number of servings per product container.

Be a smart consumer and improve your health

Sugar is everywhere and even despite our best efforts, it can be really tricky to identify all the types of added hidden sugars present in our foods. Manufacturers are getting smarter at disguising sugar-based ingredients in their products so even a very savvy shopper can easily fall for their marketing gimmicks. 

So how do you navigate this minefield of modern food shopping? How can we improve the state of our health and our daily performance

The most effective way to reduce your sugar intake is to eat mostly whole and minimally processed foods. However, if you decide to buy packaged food, be on the lookout for any suspicious, healthy-sounding label claims. It’s a good practice to always carefully examine the ingredients lists of products you are buying for the first time.

You can also check out this handy guide we wrote listing some of the most notoriously unhealthy foods with high sugar content that are marketed as healthy.

Besides, if you are unsure whether your sugar consumption has been affecting you in a negative way, it is always a great idea to check your blood glucose levels. We can definitely help with that! 

How can we help you stay in control of your sugar consumption?

The ElevateMe health test includes an HbA1c blood glucose test20. Additionally, it tests for 20 other blood markers. These markers are chosen by our medical experts to give the most holistic view of your overall health and wellbeing.

A one-stop health app – track, improve, and learn. Here’s what our interactive report looks like.

Additionally, with the ElevateMe health app, you’ll also get a personalised action plan with actionable tasks that will help you get your glucose levels under control. Join ElevateMe today and purchase your first health test here.

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.

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  1. Te Morenga, L., Mallard, S. & Mann, J. (2013). Dietary sugars and body weight: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomised controlled trials and cohort studies. British Medical Journal, 346 :e7492
  1. Stanhope, K. L. (2016). Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences, 53(1), 52–67. 
  1. Makarem, N., Bandera, E. V., Nicholson, J. M., & Parekh, N. (2018). Consumption of Sugars, Sugary Foods, and Sugary Beverages in Relation to Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies. Annual Review of Nutrition, 38, 17–39. 
  1. Basu, S., Yoffe, P., Hills, N. & Lustig, R., H. (2013). The Relationship of Sugar to Population-Level Diabetes Prevalence: An Econometric Analysis of Repeated Cross-Sectional Data. PLoS ONE 8(2): e57873. 
  1. Khan, T. A., Tayyiba, M., Agarwal, A., Mejia, S. B., de Souza, R. J., Wolever, T., Leiter, L. A., Kendall, C., Jenkins, D., & Sievenpiper, J. L. (2019). Relation of Total Sugars, Sucrose, Fructose, and Added Sugars With the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 94(12), 2399–2414. 
  1. Prinz, P. (2019). The role of dietary sugars in health: molecular composition or just calories?. The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 73, 1216–1223
  1. Wang, X., Ouyang, Y., Liu, J., Zhu, M., Zhao, G., Bao, W., & Hu, F. B. (2014). Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. British Medical Journal (Clinical research ed.), 349, g4490. 
  1. Rippe, J. M., & Angelopoulos, T. J. (2016). Relationship between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding. Nutrients, 8(11), 697. 
  1. https://www.bda.uk.com/resourceDetail/printPdf/?resource=sugar
  1. Talati, Z., Pettigrew, S., Neal, B., Dixon, H., Hughes, C., Kelly, B., & Miller, C. (2017). Consumers’ responses to health claims in the context of other on-pack nutrition information: a systematic review. Nutrition Reviews, 75(4), 260–273. 
  1. White J. S. (2008). Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain’t. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 88(6), 1716S–1721S. 
  1. Taskinen, M. R., Packard, C. J., & Borén, J. (2019). Dietary Fructose and the Metabolic Syndrome. Nutrients, 11(9), 1987. 
  1. Sun, S. Z., & Empie, M. W. (2012). Fructose metabolism in humans – what isotopic tracer studies tell us. Nutrition & Metabolism, 9(1), 89.
  1. Helsley, R. N., Moreau, F., Gupta, M. K., Radulescu, A., DeBosch, B., & Softic, S. (2020). Tissue-Specific Fructose Metabolism in Obesity and Diabetes. Current Diabetes Reports, 20(11), 64. 
  1. Bray G. A. (2013). Energy and fructose from beverages sweetened with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup pose a health risk for some people. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 4(2), 220–225. 
  1. Fernández-Díazcouder, A., Romero-Nava, R., Carbó, R., Sánchez-Lozada, L. G., & Sánchez-Muñoz, F. (2019). High Fructose Intake and Adipogenesis. International journal of molecular sciences, 20(11), 2787. 
  1. Lelis, D. F., Andrade, J., Almenara, C., Broseguini-Filho, G. B., Mill, J. G., & Baldo, M. P. (2020). High fructose intake and the route towards cardiometabolic diseases. Life Sciences, 259, 118235. 
  1. Ruanpeng, D., Thongprayoon, C., Cheungpasitporn, W., & Harindhanavudhi, T. (2017). Sugar and artificially sweetened beverages linked to obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. QJM : Monthly Journal of the Association of Physicians, 110(8), 513–520. 
  1. Qi, X., & Tester, R. (2021). Is sugar extracted from plants less healthy than sugar consumed within plant tissues? The sugar anomaly. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 101(6), 2194–2200. 
  1. Weykamp C. (2013). HbA1c: a review of analytical and clinical aspects. Annals of laboratory medicine, 33(6), 393–400. 
4 Tricks To Identify Hidden Sugars in Your Groceries - ElevateMe

Written by Anna Gora

I am a certified personal trainer, nutritionist and health coach with nearly 10 years of professional experience. I hold a Master’s degree in Nutrition, Physical Activity & Public Health from the University of Bristol. I am passionate about empowering people to live a healthy lifestyle and promoting the benefits of a plant-based diet.


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