In the new year, is it actually possible to cut out “hidden sugar”?

They're only 'hidden' if you don't know what to look for”

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published December 26, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Sugar cubes in metallic spoons (Getty Images/Yulia Reznikov)
Sugar cubes in metallic spoons (Getty Images/Yulia Reznikov)

Earlier this year, I aimed to cut down on sugar. This didn’t seem too big a feat since I'm not a dessert person. Sure, I like the occasional good scoop of ice cream or frozen yogurt, but  I've never been a big cake, pie, cookie or brownie-type guy. I also have a sheer distaste for "sweet" savory food. I want my savory food to be deeply rich and, well … savory, with no errant sweet undertones whatsoever.

Unfortunately, if you mix some form of dairy with some sort of sweetener or flavoring and a few shots of espresso, you've got me. Between coffee drinks and Mountain Dew, in all its effervescent, neon green glory, I love a sweet drink, but even those indulgences are relatively easy to curb. 

Where things get trickier, however, isn’t in cutting out the sodas, candies, cookies and chocolates — but when there’s a glut of sugar in places you might not expect it, like your salad dressing or your protein shake. These have come to be known as “added sugars” or as the slightly more ominous “hidden sugars,” and everyone from Harvard Health to Johns Hopkins have issued warnings about just how pervasive they are. But in our current food system, where Americans are eating more and more ultra-processed foods, is it possible to actually avoid them?

"They're only 'hidden' if you don't know what to look for,” said Jessica Sylvester, a clinical, registered dietitian, nutrition practice owner, Credentialed Nutrition Support Clinician and National Media Spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

Added sugars are simply defined as any sugar added over and above any naturally occurring or present sugars, like those found in fruit. Typically added sugar is meant to “enhance flavor, texture, shelf life or other properties,” according to Nichole Dandrea-Russert, a dietitian and author of and "The Vegan Athlete's Nutrition Handbook.” 

"They're only 'hidden' if you don't know what to look for." 

Dandrea-Russert cautions that some products are marketed as “healthy,” but they are truly anything but — they’re just claiming to be so because they aren’t made with traditional sugar. Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist Deborah Malkoff-Cohen actually notes that there are 62 different names for sugar, from agave and malt syrup to dextrose and barley malt. Also, keep an eye out for sugars that end in “-ose,” like fructose or dextrose, as well as any syrups, cane juice or fruit juice concentrate (“because,” as Dandrea-Russert said, “it’s condensed and not in the form of a whole fruit, it’s considered added sugar”). 

According to the American Heart Association, men should consume no more than 36 grams of sugar per day and women should limit their consumption to 25 grams — but in a world of added and hidden sugars, that threshold can be reached relatively quickly. You may be going to town and consuming a certain product on a daily basis that you erroneously think is "healthy" and it's actually upping your sugar consumption exponentially. 

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For instance, Malkoff-Cohen uses a specific example of Greek yogurt: a plain carton may contain three total sugars with no added sugars, while a flavored yogurt carton contains 11 total sugars, with 7 grams of added sugars. Clearly there’s a drastic difference, and the key to understanding that is right there on the pesky nutrition label. 

It can be tempting to avoid nutrition labels, but Malkhoff-Cohen recommends consumers become "label detectives" in order to avoid these covertly sweet items or products, especially if you are looking to prioritize your health in the New Year. 

In addition to yogurt, Dandrea-Russert points to salad dressings as a big culprit when it comes to hidden sugars, while Malkhoff-Cohen lists other common offenders: pasta sauce, ketchup, barbecue sauce, cereal, coleslaw and dried fruit. Drinks, including soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, are often full of added sugars. Dandrea-Russert also specifically mentions chocolate milk, which can "have up to 12 grams of extra sugar, making it a whopping 24 grams of sugar for just one cup of chocolate milk." 

So, where do you start if you want to begin cutting added and hidden sugars from your diet? Malkoff-Cohen offers some straightforward suggestions. The first is to prioritize foods that come without a package — like fresh fruits and vegetables — because they won’t contain added sugars meant to prolong shelf life. She also advises to "eat the real thing" when it comes to sweeteners, such as honey and maple syrup, but in smaller portions. She also states that in many instances, artificial sweeteners may actually be even more concerning than "real sugar"; from aspartame to acesulfame potassium and sucralose, all of these ostensibly "better for you" alternatives may actually cause higher coronary artery disease risk. 

Concerned about how your body (and taste buds) will react to the changes? Well, did you know that our taste buds actually change on a weekly basis? Sylvester says that "how we perceive flavors is affected by the foods we are accustomed to eating and any changes to our palate," referencing that if you were to legitimately cut out all sugars and artificial sweeteners, you'd be bowled over by how naturally sweet many foods actually are all on their own. 

She challenges consumers to test it out on their own — cut out all sugars and artificial sweeteners for two weeks and perceive your tastes, behavior and physiological changes — you may be struck by how jarringly saccharine certain" diet" foods, drinks and candies may seem (oftentimes due to the fact that most artificial sweeteners actually are typically much more “potent in sweetness,” as Sylvester put it, than sugar.)

Dandrea-Russert concurs that eliminating any and all added sugars from your diet is entirely doable  and that gradually “you can minimize and eventually eliminate added sugar from your diet." Utilize whole foods, fruits, date paste, making your own salad dressings and soon enough, your "taste buds will slowly acclimate to less sweetness.” 

While it can be pesky to suss out these nefarious sugars, it's certainly both tenable and possible. It just might require a touch more vigilance and research when deciding on what to get for dinner or what to have for a snack.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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Added Sugar Dietary Food Health Hidden Sugar Nutrition Sugar Sugar Substitutes