Hidden sugars and how to avoid them

Hidden sugars are the added sugars in our food products that make controlling our consumption of sugar extremely difficult. These ‘invisible’ sugars are found in the least likely places and can undermine our efforts to control our diabetes … unless we know where they are hiding.

Healthy people who eat too much sugar increase their risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer … among many other diseases.

But diabetics who eat too much sugar are letting their disease run out of control … and are risking a variety of hideous medical conditions, including blindness, kidney failure, heart disease, strokes, and amputated feet and so on.

Thus, for both healthy people and diabetics alike, minimising sugar intake is vital. But that is easier said than done.

The problem is processed foods and the added sugars they contain … the so-called hidden sugars. These, like certain fats, are added to food products in order to enhance flavour.

Foods that you would not consider to be sweet, such as savoury sauces, can contain hidden sugars.

In addition, many low-fat food products contain extra sugar as flavour enhancers to make up for the loss of fat.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that men limit their intake of added sugars to 36 grams (9 teaspoons) a day and women limit their intake of 24 grams (6 tablespoons) a day.

But these recommendations refer to healthy persons, not diabetics. And anyone who consumes processed foods regularly will easily eat much more added sugar than those limits.

Here are some foods that contain a lot more sugar than you would think … treat them with extreme caution.

BBQ sauce and ketchup

BBQ sauce is loaded with sugar. Analysts have discovered that up to 40% by weight can be pure sugar. However, on average, one tablespoon of BBQ sauce contains 7 grams (nearly 2 tablespoons) of sugar.

So five tablespoons of BBQ marinade will deliver the whole of a man’s recommended daily allowance, according to the AHA.

Ketchup is less sugary … only one teaspoon of sugar in one tablespoon of ketchup. So ketchup is ok, if you use just a little.

Spaghetti sauce

Spaghetti sauce is a prime example of how you can find hidden sugars in what seem to be the least likely places.

Because they are made with tomatoes, spaghetti sauces will contain some natural sugars. But most commercial spaghetti sauce has added sugar to enhance flavour.

To avoid added sugar, you could learn to make your own spaghetti sauce.

Alternatively, play close attention to the labels in the supermarket and pick a sauce that has no added sugar (if you can find one) or only a little.

Baked beans

Baked beans are a healthy high-protein part of any diet. But regular baked beans can be surprisingly high in sugar.

A 225 gram tin (can) of baked beans can contain about 20 grams (5 teaspoons) of sugar.

However you can find “no sugar added” versions of baked beans in which the sugar content is 65% less than regular baked beans. These baked beans are usually also lower in fat and calories.

“No sugar added” baked beans are the obvious choice.

Readymade soup

When it is made with fresh vegetables, soup is a healthy choice. It enables you to increase your consumption of vegetables with little effort.

The vegetables used to make soup contain naturally occurring sugars. You can eat these as the amounts of sugar are very low and vegetables contain lots of other beneficial nutrients … provided you make the soup at home.

The problem with readymade soups from your local supermarket is that they contain lots of added ingredients, including that great flavour enhancer: sugar.

A few … but very few … contain low amounts of sugar.

To find out how much sugar a readymade soup contains, check the label for different kinds of sugars such as sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, barley malt, dextrose, maltose and so on.

But be aware … sometimes soup-makers list small amounts of various types of sugars separately which when added together make for a highly sugared soup.

Sports drinks

Sports drinks are designed to refuel athletes during prolonged intense exercise. To do so they contain large amounts of simple sugars that can be absorbed quickly and used for energy. Thus they are considered a healthy choice for persons who exercise.

A standard 570ml (20oz) bottle of a sports drink contains 32 grams (8 teaspoons) of sugar, almost the whole of a man’s daily allowance of added sugars according to the American Heart Association.

Thus sports drinks are ‘sugary’ drinks, just like soda and fruit juices, and have been linked to obesity and metabolic syndrome.

They are only really suitable for top athletes and marathon runners. The rest of us should stick to plain old water while exercising, and avoid sports drinks altogether.

Chocolate milk

Chocolate milk is ordinary cow’s milk that has been flavoured with cocoa and sweetened with sugar. It is very much an acquired taste of American origin.

A regular 8-oz (230ml) glass of chocolate milk contains 2 teaspoons (8 grams) of added sugar … so this comforting beverage should be avoided absolutely.

Of course, if you are following the beating-diabetes diet to control your type 2 diabetes, you will not be consuming any dairy products, including milk, at all.

Flavoured coffees

Modern coffee shops no longer sell only plain old coffee or espresso … their coffees come flavoured with a variety of added ingredients including cocoa powder, honey, chocolate, cinnamon, and so on.

The amount of hidden sugars in these drinks can be staggering … a large flavoured coffee in some coffee chains could contain up to 25 teaspoons (100 grams) of sugar, ie nearly three times the sugar you would get in a 12-oz (340ml) can of Coke.

Your best bet is to avoid flavoured coffees like the plague.

Iced Tea

Iced tea is a chilled tea that is usually flavoured with syrup or just sweetened with sugar.

It’s a popular international beverage. Because it comes in so many varieties, the sugar content in iced tea can vary greatly.

However, most commercially made iced teas contain about 33 grams (more than 8 teaspoons) of sugar in a 12-oz (340ml) serving … about the same as a can of Coke.

It would be best to avoid iced teas. You may, if you are lucky, be able to find a supermarket brand that does not contain any added sugar.

On the other hand, you could make your own with no sugar. Just make some regular tea (Indian or Chinese), chill it and squeeze a drop of lemon juice into it … delicious!

Breakfast cereals

Breakfast cereal (or just plain cereal) is made from processed grains. It may be fortified with vitamins. Cereals can be eaten at any time of the day, but are most often eaten first thing in the morning.

Cereals are usually mixed with milk, yoghurt or fruit and can be served hot or cold.

Some of these cereals are very healthful, especially if they are based on oats and contain plenty of fibre. But a significant proportion of cold cereals are made with high sugar content.

Cereals marketed at children, for example, have excessive added sugar … up to 12 grams (3 teaspoons) in a small 30-gram (1-ounce) serving.

So be very cautious when buying breakfast cereals … read the labels carefully.


According to Wikipedia, granola is a breakfast food and snack food consisting of rolled oats, nuts, honey or other sweeteners such as brown sugar, and sometimes puffed rice, that is usually baked until it is crisp, toasted and golden brown … dried fruit, such as raisins and dates, and confections such as chocolate are sometimes added.

Rolled oats, the main ingredient, are a well-balanced cereal containing carbohydrates, protein, fat and fibre. However, in granola, they are combined with honey and nuts which increases the sugar content and calories per serving.

In fact, 100 grams of granola usually contains the best part of 400 calories and more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) of sugar (the maximum daily allowance for a woman according to the AHA).

If you really must eat granola, try making your own with little or no added sugar.

Cereal bars

A cereal bar (or breakfast bar) is a pre-packaged food item similar in shape to a chocolate bar, made of cereal and, typically, fruit.

If you are rushed in the morning, cereal bars can seem like a healthy yet convenient replacement for your usual breakfast, hence the term breakfast bar.

Not so … like other “health bars”, cereal bars a nearly always just candy bars in disguise: they contain very little protein or fibre and are loaded with added sugar.


Protein bars

Foods with lots of protein in them seem to increase your feeling of fullness, so you eat less, and this should help you lose weight. This has lead people to think that protein bars are a healthy snack.

There are, indeed, several healthy protein bars on the market … but most protein bars contain about 30 grams (7.5 teaspoons) of sugar, ie about the same amount as an ordinary bar of candy.

The trick is to read the label and avoid protein bars that are high in sugar. Alternatively you could eat a different high-protein food such as non-dairy yoghurt.

Low-fat yogurt

Yogurt is highly nutritious.

The problem is that, to enhance their flavour, low-fat yogurts (like many low-fat products) contain added sugar.

A single cup (245g) of low-fat yogurt can contain up to 47 grams of sugar … 12 teaspoons … ie, more than the daily AHA limit.

You can avoid this so-called “healthy” but sugar-sweetened yogurt by choosing full-fat, natural or Greek yogurt, all of which are more nutritious than low-fat yogurt.

However, as a type 2 diabetic, you would be better off switching to non-dairy yogurts based on, for example, soy beans, which are nutritious and contain little fat or added sugar.

Canned (tinned) fruit

Eating fresh fruit is good for you, even though all fruits contain natural sugars.

Fruit can be preserved in juice and canned. This kind of tinned fruit should provide a healthy snack, in theory at least.

But some canned fruit is fruit that has been peeled and preserved in sugary syrup … which makes it totally unsuitable for diabetics.

This process also strips the fruit of its fibre and can destroy its vitamin C which is sensitive to heat, though other nutrients are usually well preserved.

Your best bet is to eat whole fresh fruit.

If you must have tinned fruit, look for some that has been preserved in juice, which should have a lower sugar content, rather than in syrup … read the labels.

Fruit juice

Fruit juice contains the same micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) as whole fruit but not the fibre. However it does contain much more natural sugars.

This is because it takes a lot of fruit to produce a glass of fruit juice, so you get more sugar in a glass of juice than you would get by eating the same volume of whole fruit.

In addition, for reasons unknown, most fruit juices sold in supermarkets contain added sugar. As a result there can be as much sugar in fruit juice as there is in Coke, a sugary drink by definition. Fruit juices can therefore result in the same poor health outcomes you get from sugary sodas.

Your best bet is to limit the juice you drink and eat whole fruit instead. I limit my intake of fruit juice to 10cl a day, drinking it only at breakfast time.


A smoothie is a thick drink made by blending raw fruit or vegetables with other ingredients such as water, ice, dairy products or sweeteners.

Made at home, a smoothie can be full of dietary goodness, such as fibre and vitamins. However the nutritional values of commercially made smoothies range from healthful down to truly awful.

This is because they come in excessively large sizes and can be sweetened with fruit juice, ice cream or syrup which increases their sugar content dramatically.

In fact, some commercially made smoothies can contain 94 grams (24 teaspoons) of sugar in a single bottle … a disastrous dose of sugar even if you were not a diabetic.

Thus you need to check the ingredients carefully and only buy small-sized bottles.

The above are just a few samples of foods that contain hidden sugars. There are many more, eg bread.

How to avoid added sugars

The best way to avoid added sugars is to read the labels closely when you go shopping.

But how do you read food labels?

Reading food labels is easy once you know what information they contain.

A food label will usually include the following:

  • name of the food and its type,
  • name and address of the manufacturer
  • net quantity (amount by weight or volume);
  • list of the ingredients; and
  • nutritional information.

The list of ingredients … shows the common names for the ingredients. In the USA these are listed in descending order by weight or volume, ie the heaviest or largest is shown first. In Europe they are not shown in any particular order.

The list also includes items such as flavourings, colourings, preservatives, and humectants (which help products retain water).

Ingredients that have a specific function, such as preservatives, must also have their function shown. In Europe the nature of the ingredient is listed first with the actual ingredient following immediately in brackets, eg humectant (glycerine). In the USA, this is reversed and the actual ingredient is shown with the functional nature in brackets, viz, glycerine (humectant).

Ingredients that are made up of other ingredients (such as sauces) are listed and are immediately followed by a list (inside brackets) of each ingredient they, in turn, contain.

For example, if a product contains tomato sauce, it will be listed as (say) … potatoes, tomato sauce (tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, onions, garlic and celery), garlic, etc…

Nutritional information … consists of all the macro-nutrients and many of the micro-nutrients a food provides and is usually displayed in a box format.

The information includes the quantity of each nutrient per 100g or per 100ml, and per serving. The size of serving is also shown, eg 10g, 30cl.

The information in the box usually begins with the number of calories, followed by the calories from fat. Then the amount of protein, fat, saturated fat, trans-fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, sugar, fibre, and sodium are usually listed with their quantities.

Micro-nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron may be shown separately at the bottom of the box.

Insignificant amounts of nutrients, ie those that weight less than 1 gram or for which the quantity expressed as a decimal would round to zero, are usually left out of the nutritional information even though they appear in the list of ingredients. Examples include various spices.

Checking food labels

If you are following the beating-diabetes diet, you will be limiting your culinary choices to foods that are low in sugar, low in fat, low in salt, but high in fibre, and that are digested slowly (ie, have a low GI rating). At the same time, you are avoiding animal derived foodstuffs such as eggs and dairy products (eg, milk, cheese etc).

To read food labels, you just check the list of ingredients and the nutrition facts to ensure that the food in question meets these requirements.

Ingredients list … just make sure that there are (a) no animal-derived ingredients, (b) no partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (aka trans-fats), and (c) no or only a little added sugar.

Common animal-derived ingredients include … milk solids … whey … casein (and casein derivatives, eg sodium caseinate) … egg products … gelatine, and … cheese. Reject the food product if any of these are contained in the list of ingredients.

Nutritional facts … once you are satisfied that the ingredients in the food product are acceptable, check to see whether the product meets your nutritional needs.

Ideally, a serving will contain … a maximum of 2 grams of fat … a maximum of 10% energy from fat, and … no cholesterol. If any cholesterol is shown then it must contain animal-derived ingredients as plants do not contain any cholesterol.

It should also contain little or no added sugar, be low in sodium (salt) and have a low glycemic index value, though this will not be shown under nutrition facts.

However, if the glycemic index value is low, this may be shown (usually prominently) on the package itself.

That’s it … now you know how to avoid added sugars in your diet … all it takes is a little willpower.

Author: Paul Kennedy

Paul D Kennedy is a qualified accountant and an international business consultant who used his skills as a researcher to uncover the mysteries of type 2 diabetes and gain control over his health and wellbeing.

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