Foods That Have More Sugar Than You Realized

A lot of nutrition science is up for debate, but one thing everyone agrees on is that sugar, particularly added sugar, isn't good for you and should be kept to a minimum. The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends keeping added sugar intake at less than 10% of total calories. On a 2,000-calorie diet, that's 200 calories (50 grams, 12.5 teaspoons). The average American, however, consumes 66.5 grams a day. Because of added sugar's link to obesity, cavities, and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, some organizations suggest even stricter limits. The World Health Organization, for instance, recommends keeping added sugar to less than 5% of total calories.

It can be tricky to avoid added sugar, however, considering more than two-thirds of packaged foods contain the stuff, according to a 2013 paper published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. While everyone knows products like soda, cookies, and ice cream are loaded with added sugar, there are plenty of seemingly healthy foods and beverages that contain loads of added sugar. Even "natural" sugar can be surprisingly high in some foods, and it's just as problematic when eaten to excess. It's always a good idea to read nutrition labels closely when you're at the grocery store and keep an eye out for the following sneaky sugar bombs.

Dried fruit

Dried fruit sounds like a healthy snack option and in many ways it is. Dried fruit contains the fiber and micronutrients of fresh fruit, but because the water has been removed, the natural fruit sugars are much more concentrated.

According to WebMD, 1 cup of mixed dried fruit contains about 92 grams of sugar. That's way more than a comparable volume of even the most sugary fresh fruits. For example, a cup of fresh mangoes contains only 23 grams of sugar, while cherries contain 20 grams and grapes have 15 grams (via MyFoodData). It's hard to overeat fresh fruit because all the water they contain helps fill you up. Dried fruit, on the other hand, is very easy to mindlessly munch.

And just because the sugar in dried fruit is "natural" doesn't mean it's good for you when eaten in large quantities. Fruit is high in the simple sugar fructose. Unlike glucose, which can be used by every cell in your body, fructose can only be processed by the liver. Consuming too much fructose — whether it comes from sodas sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup or fruit — can overload the liver and, over time, damage it. This in turn can cause other issues, such as fatty liver, high cholesterol, gout, and problems with the hormones insulin and leptin, which control feelings of fullness (via Healthline).

Agave

If you're watching your sugar intake, you've probably considered switching to an alternative natural sweetener like agave. But don't be fooled; agave nectar (made from the same succulent plant used to make tequila) still contains sugar — and lots of it. One tablespoon contains 15 grams of sugar, whereas a tablespoon of regular table sugar (sucrose) contains just 12 grams. In fact, two other popular natural sweeteners also contain more sugar than sucrose. Honey packs in 17.3 grams of sugar, while maple syrup has 12.4 grams. Your body doesn't care whether the sugar you consume comes from agave or a bag of Domino (via MyRecipes).

It's true that the calories from agave are slightly less "empty" than the calories from regular table sugar. Agave does contain small amounts of several vitamins, including riboflavin (B2), pyridoxine (B6), folate (B9), and vitamin K. These micronutrients may guard against conditions like depression, heart disease, and stroke, and B vitamins can boost metabolism. But you'd have to eat a lot of agave to get meaningful amounts of these vitamins, and they can be found in a number of other foods that don't contain such large amounts of sugar (via WebMD).

Flavored yogurt

Plain yogurt is undoubtedly a healthy food choice. Flavored varieties, on the other hand, can contain as much sugar as a decadent dessert. All yogurt contains naturally occurring sugar, known as lactose. The body breaks this down into two other sugars: glucose and galactose. Lactose gives dairy products a slightly sweet flavor. In addition to serving as a source of energy, lactose assists with the absorption of calcium and magnesium and can act as a prebiotic food for our gut microbiome. Unlike other sugars, lactose has a low score on the glycemic index, meaning it won't spike blood sugar levels as quickly as other sugars like sucrose (table sugar). Many individuals, however, lose the ability to properly break down lactose as they age (via Medical News Today).

Many yogurts, however, contain added sugar to make them tastier. Yoplait's original Blueberry Smoothie flavor, for instance, packs in a whopping 17 grams of added sugar per 6-ounce serving. Even plain Jane Vanilla flavor includes 14 grams of added sugar — as much as in the more decadent-sounding Cookies 'N Cream flavor.

One survey in the U.K. found that the average 3.5-ounce serving of plain yogurt contained 5 grams of total sugar (all naturally occurring lactose). The average flavored yogurt, however, contained 12 grams. If you think going organic is the answer to avoiding sugar, think again: The average organic yogurt surveyed contained 13.1 grams (via Yogurt Nutrition).

Granola bars

Is your favorite on-the-go snack a hidden sugar trap? Granola bars can be surprisingly high in sugar. A serving of Oats 'N Dark Chocolate Crunchy Granola Bars from Nature Valley contains 12 grams of sugar, all of them added. The Salted Caramel Chocolate Sweet & Salty Granola Bar contains 10 grams (9 of which are added), while the Dark Chocolate Cherry Fruit & Nut Bar has 8 grams (including 7 grams of added sugar).

Even though granola bars are often marketed as a healthy snack or meal replacement to help you lose weight, the large amounts of sugar they contain pack on the pounds in two ways. First, sugar, like other macronutrients, contains calories — four per gram (via the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Second, sugar can influence hormones that affect weight. As a 2019 paper published in Medical Hypotheses pointed out, the body deals with the sudden spikes in blood glucose that sugar causes by secreting insulin. Insulin allows glucose to be used by cells but also causes any unneeded glucose to be stored as fat. If you eat large amounts of sugar long enough, your body becomes resistant to insulin's effects and your pancreas has to secrete more and more insulin, leading to weight gain. In fact, as the paper noted, insulin resistance is a defining characteristic of obesity.

Salad dressing

If you consider the best part of a salad the dressing you douse it in, you may be drenching your healthy veggies in more sugar than you realize. Wish-Bone Balsamic Vinaigrette, Thousand Island, and Italian dressings, for instance, all contain 4 grams of sugar in just 2 tablespoons. Even brands that are perceived as high-end and more health-conscious pack their salad dressings with sugar to make them tasty. The Poppy Seed dressing from Newman's Own contains 5 grams of sugar per serving, while their Raspberry & Walnut vinaigrette has 6 grams. It may seem counterintuitive but, across brands, creamy, can't-possibly-be-good-for-you ranch dressings actually contain less sugar than other flavors.

One of the reasons experts advise against eating too much sugar is the sweet stuff's well-established link to cavities. But how exactly does sugar damage your teeth? According to Healthline, dental plaque is actually a waste product created by harmful bacteria that live in your mouth and feed off of the sugar you consume. When this plaque builds up, it makes your mouth more acidic, which erodes tooth enamel and creates cavities. The two species of bacteria most likely to cause cavities are Streptococcus mutans and Streptococcus sorbrinus.

Ketchup

Whether slathered on a burger, dolloped on a hot dog, or puddled next to a pile of piping-hot fries, there's no condiment more American than ketchup. If you're as addicted to the stuff as most people are, the reason may be all the sugar that's hidden inside that familiar bottle.

A single serving of Heinz contains 4 grams of sugar, and while that may not sound like a lot, consider that a serving size is just a single tablespoon. Who has the self-control to use just a tablespoon of ketchup? While Heinz does offer several options with less sugar (for example, a "sweetened only with honey" option with 3 grams of sugar and a "no sugar added" choice with only 1 gram), a number of their supposedly healthier varieties (such as "no artificial sweeteners" and "organic") contain just as much sugar. All that sugar adds up: A 20-ounce bottle of regular Heinz contains about two-thirds of a cup of sugar (via Insider).

Okay, so maybe you don't limit yourself to just a single tablespoon of ketchup when you're doctoring up your food, but you can't be eating that much ... right? Well, according to some truly shocking statistics reported by Taste of Home in 2019, the average American eats 71 pounds of ketchup a year. That works out to about 3.1 ounces a day, which is a little over five 1-tablespoon servings, or 20 grams of sugar.

Barbecue sauce

Barbecue sauce is another condiment that's surprisingly high in sugar. Just 2 tablespoons of Sweet Baby Ray's Sweet 'N Spicy barbecue sauce contains a whopping 15 grams of sugar (14 of which are added sugar), while the Hickory & Brown Sugar variety contains 17 grams of sugar (16 of which are added sugar).

A key health concern when it comes to sugar is its link to diabetes. According to Healthline, eating a diet high in sugar can increase your risk for diabetes both directly and indirectly. Fructose, a type of simple sugar that gives high-fructose corn syrup its name and makes up half of regular table sugar, can damage the liver, which in turn can lead to insulin resistance. This in turn makes it difficult for your body to properly control blood sugar levels. Eating too many sugar-rich foods can also lead to weight gain and more belly fat, both of which are risk factors for diabetes.

Diabetes is a big problem in the United States. The American Diabetes Association estimates that approximately 34.2 million Americans have diabetes, while another 88 million have prediabetes — a condition that, if not properly managed with diet and lifestyle changes, can become full-blown diabetes. Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.

Pasta sauce

Did you know there's sugar lurking in your favorite red sauce? To be fair, a high-quality tomato-based sauce does require a bit of sugar. As Taste of Home explained, the sugar cuts the natural acidity of the tomatoes and helps create a well-balanced sauce. But a big pot of homemade sauce requires a very small amount of sugar — as little as just a ¼ teaspoon, depending on the variety and ripeness of the tomatoes you're using.

But manufacturers often add considerably more sugar than what's absolutely necessary. Prego's Chunky Tomato, Onion & Garlic Italian Sauce contains 9 grams of sugar (including 3 grams of added sugar) in just half a cup. The brand's Italian Sauce Flavored with Meat Sauce contains 10 grams of sugar per serving (4 of which are added sugar). Ironically, the more decadent-sounding sauces often contain less sugar. Prego's Homestyle Alfredo, for instance, only has 1 gram of sugar per serving, while the Basil Pesto Italian Sauce has none.

Bottled iced tea

Iced tea can be a refreshing and sugar-free beverage option, but if you prefer pre-bottled varieties, you're likely getting more sugar than you bargained on. Fuze Tea's green tea has 21 grams of sugar per 16.9-ounce serving, while Lipton's raspberry ice tea has 26.1 and Arizona's blueberry white tea has 42.5. That's equivalent to 4.2, 5.2, and 8.5 teaspoons of sugar, respectively (via healthyfood). In fact, according to the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 11% of the added sugar Americans consume comes from coffee and tea.

You might expect that antioxidant-packed iced tea would keep your skin looking young and radiant, but all that sugar is wreaking havoc on your complexion. According to UnityPoint Health, sugar can trigger acne, encourage the appearance of wrinkles and dark spots, and lead to skin sagging. Sugar ages your skin at the level of your DNA by accelerating the shortening of telomers. Telomers are little "caps" that sit at the end of each strand of DNA and protect it from damage. Telomeres shorten naturally as we age, but sugar speeds up the process. The visible effects this stripping away of our DNA's protective telomeres has on our skin is just an external manifestation of the accelerated aging sugar can cause throughout our bodies.

Smoothies

Smoothies have a reputation as a healthy, convenient meal option, but is it deserved? Although constructing a delicious smoothie that doesn't break the sugar bank is totally doable at home, the choices at most smoothie and juice bars should be considered dessert rather than a balanced meal. Jamba's popular Mango-A-Go-Go smoothie, for instance, contains between 65 grams (for a 16-ounce small) and 110 grams (for a 28-ounce large) of sugar. Even a modest 7.6-ounce serving of the Mango + Papaya concoction from smoothie delivery service Daily Harvest packs in 19 grams of sugar. Their Chocolate + Blueberry smoothie contains 32 grams for a similar serving size.

While dietary fat is often blamed for raising cholesterol levels, sugar may have an even bigger role to play. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2007 followed more than 15,000 women for 9 to 11 years and concluded that those who ate more sugar had higher cholesterol levels and were at greater risk for developing cardiovascular disease.

Another study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2020, looked specifically at the link between cholesterol issues and sugar-sweetened beverages. While soda may be the first of these drinks that comes to mind, commercially produced fruit drinks certainly fit the bill. The study found that individuals who consumed more than one serving of sugar-sweetened beverages per day had lower HDL ("good" cholesterol) and higher triglyceride levels than those who consumed less than one such beverage per month.

Sports drinks

Gatorade and other sports drinks sound like a health-conscious beverage option — after all, they're designed to replace fluid and electrolytes lost during exercise. In reality, however, they're often packed with added sugar. According to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital, the average 32-ounce sports drink contains between 56 and 76 grams of added sugar. For comparison, a comparable serving of soda has between 104 and 124 grams of sugar. Part of the reason many people don't realize just how much sugar is in their sports drink is because of deceptive serving sizes. Most sports drinks consider a serving only 8 ounces, yet the bottle you chug down after a workout is usually three to four servings.

Even though sports drinks contain roughly half to two-thirds the sugar of soda, most consumers still consider them a valuable performance enhancer. Research shows, however, that in most cases sports drinks are unnecessary. The electrolytes and simple sugars they provide can be beneficial after prolonged exercise — more than 60 minutes of constant or intermittent high-intensity exercise or more than 90 minutes of constant lower-intensity exercise. If you're just going for a quick jog or gym session, however, plain water is sufficient (via the Sugar Nutrition Research Centre). According to the 2020–2025 Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2% of all the added sugar Americans consume comes from sports and energy drinks.

Canned soup

When it comes to high blood pressure, canned soup is double trouble. You probably already know canned soups are packed with sodium, but did you realize they're also full of sugar, and sugar can also raise blood pressure? A can of Campbell's French Onion soup, for instance, contains 12.5 grams of total sugar, while a can of the Harvest Tomato with Basil variety contains a staggering 32 grams of total sugar, 20 grams of which are added. Even the Tomato soup in their Healthy Request product line contains 27.5 grams of total sugar per can, including 17.5 grams of added sugar.

A 2014 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that children who consumed the most added sugar had higher diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number in a blood pressure reading, which measures pressure in blood vessels when the heart is relaxed) than those who consumed the least amount of sugar. A study of older women published in Nutrients in 2019 developed a statistical model that predicted that decreasing daily sugar consumption by 2.3 teaspoons would lead to a drop in systolic pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading, which measures pressure in blood vessels when the heart contracts) of 8.4 mmHg and a drop in diastolic pressure of 3.7 mmHg.

Flavored instant oatmeal

When it comes to breakfast, instant oatmeal is another quick and seemingly healthy option that's actually loaded with sugar. Oats by themselves contain no simple sugars, but if you prefer the flavored kind, you'll get a big dose of added sugar. Original (unflavored) Quaker Instant Oatmeal, for instance, contains 0 grams of sugar, natural or added. 

The Apples & Cinnamon flavor, however, contains 8 grams of added sugar, while the Maple & Brown Sugar variety contains 12 grams of added sugar. Ironically, the "healthier" instant oatmeal varieties sometimes contain more sugar than the regular instant oats. The high-protein version of the Apples & Cinnamon flavor, for example, has 10 grams of added sugar.

But don't write off oats completely; they're packed with important micronutrients like folate, zinc, iron, and manganese. They're also an excellent source of the soluble fiber beta-glucan, which can lower cholesterol, improve blood sugar control, and promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Oats are also rich in antioxidants that fight free radical damage in the body (via Healthline). If you can't stomach plain oats, consider fancying them up with spices such as cinnamon or low-sugar mix-ins such as berries, nuts, and nut butters.