The sweet truth - 10 sources of hidden sugar

Rebecca McPhee with Credit to Diabetes NSW & ACT

3 Minutes

We all know that eating too much of the sweet stuff is not good for our health. However, there is more to the sugar story than simply cutting it out of our tea and coffee. In fact, we may be consuming more sugar than what we actually think.  

Many supermarket favourites including breakfast cereals, yoghurts, snacks and canned/bottled foods and drinks feature health claims on their package. However, if you take a closer look at the food label, you may find that a healthy-looking Item like a fruit yoghurt or muesli bar contains quite a few teaspoons of hidden sugar. Even savoury foods can have added sugar in them. 


How much sugar is enough? 

Too much sugar in the diet can increase the risk of overweight/obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and tooth decay. For the best health outcomes, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends limiting sugar to six teaspoons a day. To put it into perspective, one teaspoon of sugar weighs 4.2g grams.  


What to look out for:  

Reading the ingredient list on packaged foods is a good start. Ingredients are listed in descending order, from most to least. The first three ingredients are the main ingredients so if one of these is a type of sugar, you know it is not a healthy everyday choice. 

Reading the nutrition information panel is another way to determine whether a product contains too much-hidden sugar. Look for the 100g column so that you can compare the nutrition information of other products.  Next look for Carbohydrates TOTAL (grams). Carbohydrates will be further broken down into sugar (grams). This indicates the amount of sugar which is included in the total amount of carbohydrate. Choose products that have less than 15g/100 grams of sugar and for products containing fruit such as breakfast cereal, go for products less than 25g/100 grams of sugar. The sugar naturally present in fruit is healthier than added table sugar so we can have a little more of this stuff.  


Sugar is often in disguise! Here are a few to look out for that all mean sugar:

  • Raw sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Palm sugar
  • Coconut sugar
  • Invert sugar
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Golden syrup
  • Corn syrup
  • Rice malt syrup
  • Molasses
  • Glucose 
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • High fructose
  • Maltodextrose
  • Agave nectar
  • Caramel

So how many teaspoons are in some of our supermarket favourites? Our in-house expert Dietitian uncovers 10 sources of hidden sugar to be aware of and suitable alternatives.


1. Low-fat fruit yoghurt

Yoghurt is a healthy everyday food choice however there are so many brands containing hidden sugar. One brand of low-fat blueberry yoghurt (170g) for example, contains 27grams sugar, which is equivalent to a chocolate bar! 

Tip: Look for natural or Greek-style varieties with no added sugar and add your own fresh fruit such as berries if you want some low sugar sweetness.  


2. Breakfast cereal

Many breakfast cereals contain grains such as wheat, barley, oats and corn so may appear to be a healthy choice. A popular crunchy corn-based cereal, for example, features nutrition claims on the box including 'fortified with vitamins and minerals' and 'containing no artificial colours or flavours'. Whilst this may be true, the first three ingredients will tell you the real nutritional value of breakfast cereal. The ingredient list on crunchy corn cereal is: corn, sugar, peanuts, barley malt flavouring, molasses, honey, salt, vitamins and minerals. Three of these ingredients are sugar, which means this cereal should probably be in the confectionery aisle.  

Tip: Go for wholegrain options such as rolled oats with natural fruit. The first three ingredients on a natural muesli packet includes rolled oats, dried fruit (apricots, sultanas, apple), almonds. This is a healthier choice as the sugar from fruit includes fibre and important vitamins and minerals too. 


3. Baked Beans

There are many brands of baked beans all with varying amounts of sugar. Half a can of baked beans has 2 teaspoons of sugar. This doesn’t mean that baked beans are off the shopping list, just something to be aware of. Baked beans are low in fat, high in plant protein and fibre so the trick is finding the lowest sugar option. 

Tip: Check the nutrition information panel and choose a brand that is lowest in sugar per 100g.


4. Bottled sauces 

There are many bottled sauces on the market with varying amounts of sugar. A serve of sweet and sour sauce, for example, contains 6 teaspoons of sugar. This is the total recommended daily amount of sugar for an average person and many of us probably have a larger than recommended portion.  

Tip: Check the nutrition information panel and choose sauces with < 15g/100 of sugar. Try flavouring your foods with ingredients such as vinegar, olive oil, tahini, mustard, lemon and lime juice, pepper and fresh herbs spices for flavour without the sugar or extra kilojoules.  


5. Muesli bars    

Just like breakfast cereals, muesli bars are heavily marketed to appear healthy. The truth is that many muesli bars contain hidden sugars. A yoghurt topped muesli bar, for example, contains 5 teaspoons of sugar!

Tips: Look for muesli bars that have dried fruit instead of chocolate pieces or lots of sugar in the ingredients list. Good choices contain less than 15g sugar per 100g. An even better option is to make your own. Try this low GI muesli bar recipe.


6. Chocolate biscuits

Chocolate biscuits vary with their sugar content. Whilst chocolate biscuits are not an everyday food choice, there are some healthier alternatives if you do fancy a biscuit with your morning or afternoon cuppa. 

Tips: Check the label and opt for biscuits less than 15g sugar per 100g. Simply swapping 2 Tim Tams for 2 chocolate digestive biscuits, for example, will save you 6.2g sugar!


7. Hot chocolate

Just like chocolate biscuits, many instant hot chocolates contain varying amounts of sugar per sachet.  

Tip: Make you own healthy hot chocolate - healthier but also tastier and much cheaper. Stir in 1 teaspoon cocoa powder to ¼ cup hot water. Add a dash of vanilla or cinnamon to taste and stir until combined. Add ¾ cup milk of your choice. Microwave. Add a drizzle of honey if desired 


8. Banana bread

Definitely, a common menu option in cafés however banana bread contains much more than just bananas! In fact, an average slice of banana bread contains up 7 teaspoons of sugar.  

Tips: Choose a thin slice of raisin toast which gives you a naturally sweet taste minus the extra sugar and calories. Alternatively, make your own banana bread at home and experiment with using less sugar. The sugar in many recipes can be reduced by up to half without compromising the taste or texture too much.


9. Fruit juice 

Pure unsweetened fruit juices are a good source of vitamin C but contain natural sugars and are acidic which can cause tooth decay when consumed in large amounts.  

Tips: Limit juice to 1/2 cup per day and dilute with water. Replacing juice with whole fruit will provide you with vitamins as well as dietary fibre, helping you to feel fuller for longer. 


10. Milk drinks

There are many varieties of milk drinks, most containing flavoured sugar syrup. A 600ml bottle of chocolate milk contains almost 8 teaspoons sugar! 

Tip: Reduce the portion size and swap the 600ml chocolate milk for a regular cup of milk with 2 teaspoons Milo will save you around 6 teaspoons of sugar!


In summary 

It is surprising how much-hidden sugar can be found in our favourite foods, sweet or savoury. Checking the ingredient list and reading the nutrition information panel will help you choose foods that are lower in added sugar and better for your health. 

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