For better or worse, sugar has become synonymous with weight gain. Reducing sugar from our diet, whether for our waistlines or our health, may be as simple as skipping the second gulab jamun or declining cake at a friend’s house. Or is it really that simple?
No matter how healthy your food choices are, there can be a considerable amount of sugar tucked away in the ingredients list unnoticed. These hidden sugars can tally up over the day and cause you to overeat your recommended sugar quantity without you even knowing And so the question becomes, how do you recognize and find the sugars that food producers intentionally hide in foods?
But before we dive into how to spot a hidden sugar, you have first to know where to look. The answer is quite simple: everywhere. According to Sugar Science, an online resource for evidence-based, scientific information about sugar, over 74% of products on supermarket shelves contain added sugar. In the most simple explanation I can offer, food companies add extra sugar to foods simply because we love it. We love the taste, and we love the zing of the reward from sugar hitting the pleasure centres of our brains. It makes us happy. When food makes us happy, and we get a reward from eating it, we eat more to get the same reward “hit.” Food companies know this and have studied the exact amount of “zing” our brains need to keep us reaching back for more. It’s called the “bliss point” of food.
According to an article in The New York Times Magazine titled The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, the “bliss point” is the optimal amount of sweetness that a consumer prefers. Food isn’t just loaded up with sugar—its inclusion is meticulously calculated and tested for every food you find on the shelf. Foods with too little sugar will taste on the bitter side and foods with too much sugar added will be unpalatable. The moment the flavour covers your tongue, your brain sighs in relief; that is the moment of “bliss.”
Some high hidden sugar foods are items such as pasta sauce and ketchup. Yes, even ketchup. According to an Insider article, some ketchups have four grams of sugar (1 teaspoon) for every tablespoon of sauce. Even boxed fruit juices, which are already naturally sweet, can have sugar added to them to make them even sweeter. Flavoured yoghurts are also solid contenders for the top hidden sugar title, as some can have as much added sugar as a serving of ice cream. The trouble with having a sweet bliss point for almost every food means that we are becoming too accustomed to sweet flavours, and sweet flavours are rewarding, which causes us to crave more of the same. Foods that are naturally more bitter in flavour, such as broccoli and Brussel sprouts, already challenge some of our taste buds and become more challenging to eat. It makes me wonder, do we know what actual food in its natural form tastes like anymore?
You may be sitting there shocked and perhaps even a little overwhelmed, and I understand entirely. Finding healthy food to eat has become a nightmare to navigate. Let’s dissect how food companies “hide” the sugar in the nutrition labelling so that you can be savvier in the supermarket.
Food companies have to list the ingredients by the weight of the ingredient in the final product. If there is more sugar by weight than other ingredients, sugar will be listed towards the beginning. As I mentioned earlier, ketchup can be high in sugar; and in some varieties, sugar is listed as the second ingredient after tomatoes. Typically, if sugar is found in the first three ingredients, I suggest finding a different food to eat.
Luckily for food companies (and unfortunately for us), there is more than one source of sugar, each with a different name. Food companies have found that if they break down each type of sugar and list them under other names, suddenly, the volume of any “one” sugar dilutes. Suddenly, each sugar source finds its way down the list, making it look like there is less sugar in a product. Some of the sugar aliases that exist are the following: dextrose, fructose, glucose high-fructose corn syrup, agave syrup invert sugar and sucrose The reality is that there are over 60 varieties of added sugar. I’m sure you won’t memorize them all, so here is a rough guide to spotting them immediately on the back of the box.
1. Look for the suffix “- ose” at the end of the word (dextr-”ose,” sucr-”ose”).
2. Look for a “syrup” reference (maple syrup)
3. It says “sugar” in the name of the ingredient (cane sugar)
Now that you know how to spot hidden sugars by recognizing their aliases, you must understand how much you’re consuming. The amount of added sugar into each food item may seem small; however, the amount we consume can be alarmingly high and have physical consequences. John Hopkins Medicine tells us that consuming excess sugar can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. When measuring the amount of sugar listed in the nutrition section, 4 grams of sugar equals approximately one teaspoon. The American Heart Association indicates that women should consume no more than 100 calories (24g/6 teaspoons) per day of sugar and 150 calories (36g/9 teaspoons) for men. That doesn’t work up to much, so do make smart choices about your food. And yes, as always, the fewer things you eat out of a bottle, jar or packet, the less likely you are to overdose on sugar.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight loss coach