How to Avoid Sneaky Added Sugar + Oh-So-Delicious Low-Sugar Snacks

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It’s common knowledge that a can of Coca-Cola is full of sugar. And it’s no surprise that many syrups, candies and desserts are, too. But did you know these foods are surprisingly full of “sneaky” added sugar?  

Munson Healthcare Cadillac Clinical Dietitian Samantha Struck says the dangers of sugar are simple. “Sugar is an empty calorie, meaning it provides little to no nutritional value,” she explains. “When we eat high-sugar food items like soda, juice, cake, cookies and candy, these foods have a tendency to crowd out our plate and make it more difficult to consume enough of more nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruit, lean meats, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.”

What foods contain these sneaky sugars? And how much sugar is actually okay to eat in a day? Clinical Dietitian Samantha Struck answers our questions and gives us a list of delicious foods we can eat.

“At the end of the day, sugar is not the enemy or something to be afraid of,” she says. “The problem occurs when we regularly consume processed, high-sugar foods instead of healthier options. There is no research saying that a small amount of sugar is harmful to our health. So go ahead and enjoy sugar in moderation, but it wouldn’t hurt if we were all more aware of our intake of added sugars.”

How much sugar can men vs. women eat in a day? How about kids?

The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories of added sugar for most women and no more than 150 calories of added sugar for men. These numbers correlate to 37.5 grams/9 teaspoons for men and 25 grams/6 teaspoons per day for women.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that no more than 10 percent of daily calorie needs should come from added sugars. This amounts to about 48 grams (12 teaspoons) on a typical 2,000 calorie diet. Kids need even less because they consume fewer calories. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than 30 to 35 grams (7 to 8 teaspoons) for children.

What are some common foods that are actually filled with sneaky sugars?

Frozen foods, condiments (such as ketchup, barbecue sauce and salad dressing), canned fruit and whole grain cereals, granolas and instant oatmeal.

What are some healthier alternatives to those foods?

Bulk prepping and/or freezing home cooked meals can be a convenient way to save on the sugar, sodium and calories frozen meals may have. As for condiments, try making your own salad dressing. Olive oil and balsamic vinegar alone are a simple, light option. If you want something a little fancier, the following recipe adds a little zing!

Canned fruit in heavy syrup (and dried fruit with added sugar) are also full of sneaky sugars. Instead, stick with fresh fruit. Cutting a bowl of fresh berries from the farmer’s market or local grocery store provides your taste buds with the sweetness you may be craving.

When it comes to whole grain cereals, granola and instant oatmeal, look for lower-sugar granolas (5 grams of sugar or less per serving), or make your own. (The recipe below only has 2 grams of sugar per serving!) 

Recipe: Samantha’s Low-Sugar Granola

  • 2 cups slivered raw almonds (or any nut)
  • 4 cups raw, rolled oats (old fashioned)
  • 1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
  • 1/2 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 large pinch of fine sea salt

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 315 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl.
  3. Spread the mixture in a thin layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 8–10 minutes.
  4. Cool before serving or storing. Granola can be kept in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

Recipe: Homemade Salad Dressing

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Directions 

  1. Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl.
  2. Store in a bottle or bowl in the fridge and enjoy! 

What recommendations do you have for people trying to change their lifestyle when it comes to sugar intake?

In many recipes, you can reduce sugar by 1/4 to 1/3 and still enjoy them. Plus, use sugar substitutes like Stevia, Monk Fruit or Splenda. There currently is no research proving that small amounts of artificial sweeteners cause cancer or other health issues. Most Americans would have difficulty consuming more than the acceptable daily intake of sugar substitutes (23 packets of sweetener containing sucralose, 45 packets of sweetener containing saccharin and 75 packets of sweetener containing aspartame, just for reference). However, use artificial sweeteners at your own risk as there is always new research coming out.

You can also look for sneaky ingredients that are actually other names for sugar. Some common terms include cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, raw sugar, crystal solids, high fructose corn syrup and brown rice syrup.  And just remember, although honey and maple syrup are more natural sources of sugar, they should still be consumed in moderation.

Lastly, train your taste buds to not crave sugar. As you decrease your sugar intake, things that used to taste good to you may now taste too sweet. Taste buds really do adapt!

5 oh-so-delicious low-sugar foods!

Fruit contains natural sugar along with many vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber and water. Sugar from fruit is processed in our body differently than table sugar, making it a better option. Fruit kabobs are a fun way to serve fruit.

Instead of drinking soda, try infused or flavored water. You’ll hydrate your body while saving calories from added sugar.

Try dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate. And I don’t just mean the 60–70 percent cacao dark chocolate; go for the 90 percent (or higher) cacao dark chocolate. It may taste bitter at first, but after your taste buds adapt to less sugar, this type of chocolate will be much more satiating and won’t leave you wanting more. Switching from milk chocolate to 90 percent cacao dark chocolate can save you 15 grams of sugar per serving.

Nuts and seeds have essentially no sugar in them making them a convenient, on-the-go sugar-free option. Nuts and seeds also have healthy fats in them which promote heart health.

Popcorn is another great snack idea that doesn’t have sugar in it. Making microwave popcorn at home (minding the salt and butter), or popping your own, is a great choice.


Shape Up North is a community collaboration dedicated to helping northern Michigan residents benefit from healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle. Living a healthier lifestyle can and should be an enjoyable adventure. Small changes in habits at school, work, and home can have long-lasting, positive effects on your health. With an abundance of great local foods and a four-season playground right outside your door, you and your family can lead a healthy, fit, and fun life.