These "Healthy" Foods Have Way More Sugar Than You Thought

Think you're eating healthy? You might want to think again. Sugar hides everywhere in our diets.

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Photo by Walter B. McKenzie/Getty Images

Aside from the occasional birthday cake or candy binge, you might think you're a healthy eater most of the time. But sugar lurks in more than just the obvious places, like candy bars and cupcakes. In fact some so-called "nutritious" go-tos are actually packed with enough sugar to satisfy a mouth full of sweet tooths (er, sweet teeth?), and then some. 

SugarScience, a new initiative from the University of California, San Francisco, along with a long list of partnering health departments across the country, is working to educate consumers about sugar. The information on the site comes from 8,000 research papers and warns against the risks of consuming too much sugar, including liver disease, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes.

When it comes to sugar, less is usually more. The World Health Organization recommends adults consume a max of 25 grams (or six teaspoons) per day. With the average American getting more than 19 teaspoons daily, it's safe to say that we could stand to cut back a bit. "[The recommended limit] is not very much at all and a hard goal to meet, considering that most of us consume three times as much added sugar as what's recommended," says Julie Upton, M.S., R.D., CSSD.

But it's not always the obvious sugar bombs that add up—here are some sneaky foods to avoid in the grocery aisles.

Yogurt

When it comes to sugar, yogurt can pack a powerful punch. Some kinds even have more sugar than a Twinkie, and low fat and flavored brands, in particular, might contain as much as 29 grams of sugar per serving. That doesn't necessarily mean we have to kick yogurt out of our diets though. When shopping for it, avoid flavored or low-fat varieties, as those tend to have more sugar than plain yogurt. "Look for brands with no more than 20 grams sugar per single serve container," says Joy Bauer, M.S., R.D., NBC’s Today Show diet expert, and founder of Nourish Snacks. "Or buy plain and doctor it up with fresh chopped fruit." You can also add a teaspoon of sugar, honey, or maple syrup so that you control the amount of added sweeteners in your yogurt, Bauer says.

Granola

Sprinkling granola over that plain yogurt can actually add back in the sugar you avoided by swapping out flavors for the original. One half cup can cost you more than 12 grams. Plain, unflavored granola bars are better, but not great, still clocking in at six grams. If you're really craving crunch, replace the granola with a protein-rich nut, like a handful of almonds.

Sports Drinks and Fruit Juice

Think twice before hydrating with a sports drink after a grueling workout. Just one drink can pack five teaspoons of sugar, according to Harvard University. Orange juice is even worse, containing 10 teaspoons, the same as a can of soda. Skip the sugar altogether by quenching your thirst with water next time you hit the gym. If you're not willing to give up juice, Bauer suggests adding in the same flavor of seltzer to drive down natural sugar by 50 percent and give it some fizz.

Salad

Salad itself may be good for you, as long as it's stuffed with a variety of veggies, but it's what you drizzle on top that adds a surplus of sugar. And the seemingly healthy "low-fat" option is often the worst choice, as the fat that gets cut out is often replaced with sugar. So, a two-tablespoon serving of Italian dressing has 2 grams and thousand island and fat-free French have a whopping 6 grams of sugar.

Ketchup

While it's not necessarily a health food, adding a dash of ketchup to your meal isn't as harmless as you may think. Just one tablespoon of the condiment contains a teaspoon of sugar. That's one sixth of your allotted daily amount.

Does this mean we should swear off sugar altogether? No need to panic. It's still OK to indulge in sweet treats and foods that carry natural (and small amounts of added) sugar. "It does mean that we should read food labels and keep tabs on how much added sugar we eat in a day," says Upton.

She also recommends avoiding flavored and processed foods, which are notorious for packing in the sugar. The key is to limit both the amount of sugar that we eat and how often we eat it, says nutritionist Rochelle Sirota, R.D., C.D.N. And Upton suggests learning to recognize the sometimes tricky names for added sweeteners, which include words like "evaporated cane juice" and "dextrin." Steer clear of the food if a sweetener appears in one of the top three listed ingredients, she says.