How can I check the sugar content of the foods I’m buying?

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by Tara Postnikoff

Sugar comes in many forms and goes by many names (see sidebar). We know there is sugar in sweets, desserts,baked goods, syrups and sodas. However, there are also products that contain unexpected added sugar, such as cereal, yogurt, canned fruits and vegetables, sauces and soups.

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With diabetes, obesity and other chronic disease rates on the rise, we need to pay attention to our sugar intake. The World Health Organization recommends limiting sugar intake to 10% of a person’s daily calories and advises limiting it to 5% for optimal health. To put those numbers in perspective, an average adult consuming 2000 calories per day would need to limit their consumption to 200 calories of added sugar, which represents 50 grams (or 12 teaspoons). This might sound easy to do, but consider the sugar content of these popular foods:

When you’re grocery shopping, be aware and read product labels carefully. It’s not enough to simply look at the Nutrition Facts table. You need to read the ingredients list, because some vegetables and fruits have natural occurring sugars that are fine in moderation. Ingredients are generally listed based on how much is in the product, from the largest amount to the smallest. So, if sugar (or one of its synonyms) is one of the first three ingredients, it’s probably not the healthiest option.

Manufacturers often add sugar to products as an inexpensive filler, but this may vary from brand to brand. This is another reason to closely read the details on the label.

Endurance athletes be forewarned: if you think you can afford the extra calories because of the mileage you are running, you might benefit from being more aware of the sugar you consume throughout the day, especially if you are taking in high amounts of sugar during your sustained activity. It is recommended to consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of activity, mostly in simple sugar form, to support training sessions lasting two to three hours.

While low-calorie sweeteners containing sugar alcohols might contain fewer calories than regular sugar and create less of an insulin response, these are not great options either. They are linked to other problems such as gastrointestinal issues (bloating, flatulence and diarrhea) when consumed in large amounts. Artificial sweeteners, while having limited effect on blood sugar, are not the answer either. They have been shown to lead to increased calorie consumption because these sweet chemicals don’t satisfy us the same way that calories do. Keep in mind that natural sugars like dried fruits and applesauce are still simple sugars and will increase blood sugar if consumed in large amounts. For example, two Medjool dates have 36 grams of sugar. This makes them a useful option while out on a long run, but not a wise midday snack while sitting at your computer.

For something that tastes sweet without all the drawbacks, your best option is a sugar-containing food in its natural form, such as a whole piece of fruit. This will give you more nutrients, more fibre and a lower glycemic load. In contrast, refined and processed foods containing large amounts of added sugar should be minimized due to their effect on blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as triglycerides and inflammatory markers that increase the risk of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Cutting back on your overall intake of sugar and sweet-tasting foods will lead you to become more sensitive to sweetness. Over time, you will get the same enjoyment from a sweet treat in a smaller amount.


Tara is a Registered Nutritional Consultant, certified Personal Trainer and triathlon/running coach in Toronto. She is an avid distance runner and triathlete, and a regular guest speaker for Running Room training programs.