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14 Foods with Way More Sugar than You Realize

Caution: You will probably find some of your favorite foods on this list. Before you huff and puff, remember the old adage— everything in moderation! The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to 36 grams a day for men and 24 grams for women. That's a reasonable goal considering that foods high in sugar can cause weight gain, metabolic issues, and more bad news for your heart.

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Yogurt

Eat a carton of flavored yogurt and you might as well eat a candy bar. “Despite the small carton size and association as a healthy food, a typical low-fat strawberry yogurt can contain 26 grams of sugar per serving,” says Jennifer Jackson, MD, of Ascension Via Christi Health. Opt for plain yogurt, which has zero added sugar—or Greek yogurt, with nearly twice the amount of protein—and add your own fresh fruit, plus a hanful of nuts for healthy fats and staying power. Follow these simple tips to eat less sugar (without really trying).

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Instant oatmeal

How can a wholesome bowl of oatmeal have too much sugar? Oatmeal on its own is healthy, but some packaged instant oatmeal varieties have upwards of 14 grams of sugar per packet! Jackson suggests making overnight oats, an equally delicious and convenient alternative. “Use one half-cup of whole oats with a half-cup of milk. Soak overnight in the fridge and you will have perfect fluffy oats to eat the next morning,” she says. Heat it up or eat it cold. Stir in nuts, fruit, chia seeds, and/or spices, or try these yummy oatmeal topping combinations.

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Sports and energy drinks

When 3 p.m. slump rolls around, we may reach for a sports or energy drink because they promise to boost our energy, but the boost comes from sugar and caffeine. It’s not uncommon for a one serving to contain 14 or more grams of sugar. These drinks were meant for people who just completed an intense workout of 60 minutes or more, or an endurance run of 90 minutes or more. Instead of reaching for a sugar-filled energy drink, recharge with one of these energy-boosting foods.

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Non-dairy milk

All cow’s milk has naturally occurring sugar from lactose, but non-dairy milk offerings can be loaded with added sugars. Some varieties of soy milk for example, can contain up to 14 grams of added sugar. If you’re trying to limit foods high in sugar or have lactose intolerance, look for unsweeted or “light” varieties. Check out the signs you might be lactose intolerant.

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Smoothies

Surely, a fruit or veggie smoothie is healthier than a can of soda, right? Not always. “Smoothies are another source of sugar that we sometimes forget about because they’re packed with fruits and other ingredients that benefit our health,” says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, of street-smartnutrition.com. But what appears to be a healthy beverage may have sweeteners added to enhance the natural flavor. Some may contain a whopping 60 to 70 grams of sugar, according to Harbstreet! If you’re visiting a smoothie franchise, check online to see the nutrition facts before you place your order. To avoid chugging sugar with your smoothie, try whipping up the drinks yourself at home, using these healthy-smoothie tricks.

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Granola

Granola is one of the original health foods, right? After all, what could be more natural (and nutritious) than fruit, berries, seeds, and whole grains? “Don’t let the ‘natural’ label fool you,” says Harbstreet. “Granola often features added sugars like maple syrup, molasses, and honey—and lots of it. If you’re a fan of granola, look for brands with fewer grams of sugar and more grams of fiber. “Fiber helps slow the absorption of simple carbohydrates, or sugar, and can help contribute to satiety too,” Harbstreet says.

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Dried fruit

Of course fruit is a source of natural sugars, but it also provides healthy vitamins, minerals, and fiber. What could be unhealthy about fruit that is dried, cut up, and ready to eat? “This seemingly healthy on-the-go snack can have as much sugar as a candy bar,” says Alysha Coughler, RD, at buildmybodybeautiful.com. Dried fruit is compact, so it’s pretty easy to find yourself at the bottom of an empty bag in no time. “You wouldn’t eat five whole apricots, but it’s easy to eat five dried apricots.” Look for dried fruit with little or no-added sugar.

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Frozen meals

Popping a low-fat or “light” frozen entree in the microwave seems like a quick and easy way to stay within your calorie budget. “But with some meals containing 20 to 40 grams of sugar per serving, the effect on your blood sugars may not be worth the convenience,” says Coughler. When manufacturers take out the fat, they have to replace it with something, and that is usually sugar and salt. Steer clear of frozen dinners that are smothered in sauces or condiments. Check out the healthiest low-calorie frozen meals for losing weight.

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Snack bars

Pat yourself on the back! You passed up the candy bar and bought a nutritious snack bar instead. The label screamed “nutritious” with words like whole grains, fiber, and vitamins and minerals, but it neglected to mention that it could have more sugar than some regular candy bars. “Dense bars can also be higher in overall calories, racking up as much as 20 grams of sugar and 200 to 250 calories per bar,” Coughler says. “Choose a bar that has fewer than 10 grams of sugar, fewer than 150 calories, and a minimum of five grams of fiber.” Same goes for protein bars, which can be glorified candy bars. Check the ingredient list to suss out refined grains, low fiber, and added sugars that could spike your blood sugar level. Here are mistakes you might make when reading nutrition labels.

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Bottled sauces

“Getting sauced” has a new meaning when it comes to foods high in sugar. “In ketchup and BBQ sauce, the sugar content is shocking considering they’re savory condiments,” says Coughler. Just two tablespoons of BBQ sauce for example, can contain 16 grams of sugar. That’s the equivalent of four teaspoons of table sugar. Find out which other condiments are also secret health bombs.

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Coconut water

Coconut water is all the rage, especially as a post-workout drink, probably because it has plenty of electrolytes, more potassium than bananas, and is naturally low in sugar. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a high-sugar food. “Often the sweetened and unsweetened varieties are in the same area of the store, making it confusing to make a good choice,” says Coughler. “The nutrition facts table also accounts for a serving size that is one-third to one-half of the actual bottle.” Keep that in mind when you’re checking labels for added sugars. If an eight-ounce serving size is more than 50 calories, it probably has too much sugar.

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Breakfast cereal

We can easily tell which cereals are loaded with sugar, especially when we’re shopping with kids. They have the friendly cartoon characters on them and bright colors to pull them in. But “adult” cereals can be teeming with sugar. Manufacturers often pull off this trick by tweaking the serving size. “Not many of us eat less than a cup of cereal in the morning, and yet some brands list a serving size as low as a 1/4 cup,” says Rebecca Lewis, RD, at hellofresh.com. “You have to multiply the serving size by how much you actually eat, and often, this can lead to more than half of your daily recommended sugar consumption!” Use these nutritionist-approved food hacks for a healthier breakfast every day.

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Bread

Bread may taste savory, but it can be full of added sugar. In standard packaged breads, high fructose corn syrup is usually one of the first ingredients! Not all bread has too much sugar, however. Here’s how to find healthier bread options at your grocery store.

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Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer and writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and Realtor.com., among others. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.

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