How Much Sugar is Hiding in Your Food?

Shivangana Vasudeva, NDTV  |  Updated: May 03, 2018 12:06 IST

How Much Sugar is Hiding in Your Food?
There's no way to sugarcoat it. Sugar is not your friend.

Sugars are naturally present in the tissues of most plants, but it is primarily extracted from sugarcane and sugar beet. These are rich with vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals and carbohydrates in the form of sucrose. During the refining process, they lose all their natural components except sucrose.  

Many fruits and vegetables like ripe dates, mangoes or sweet peas are naturally high in sucrose sugar. When consumed in the form of whole foods it breaks down slowly and provides nutrients along with energy. But the sucrose that is isolated and concentrated into what we know as table sugar impacts our body differently. These are pure, refined carbohydrates that lack the natural minerals present in sugar cane or beet.  Refined sugar is stripped of all its nutritional value. It is what health experts call, a source of empty calories.

Don't get me wrong. We need some sugar in our diet. It is a simple carbohydrate found naturally in many forms from lactose in milk to fructose in fruits and honey. All carbohydrates are converted into glucose in our body to give us energy and keep our brain active. But Dr. Rupali Datta, Chief Clinical Nutritionist at Fortis-Escorts Hospital also makes a point, "When we talk about carbohydrates, we mean complex carbs that are derived from starches or natural sugars present in fruits. These give you nutrients along with energy. Refined sugar that you add to tea, coffee or in desserts is not a dietary requirement. It's used for flavour and doesn't provide your body with anything." This is the case of natural sugar versus added sugar. Processed sugar is the sweetest poisons of them all. It is refined, boiled, evaporated, concentrated, goes through a series of chemical reactions and then transformed into many forms you may not even know about.


In scientific literature, sucrose or your table sugar is combination of glucose and fructose. Few of us get through the day without a dose of those pearl-white crystals. I don't suggest you give up life's little pleasures. The problem is that we're consuming too much of it, consciously and unconsciously in packaged foods that supply energy in the form of calories.

Dr. Robert Lustig who is a paediatric endocrinologist and childhood obesity expert at the University of California is in agreement. In his book, "Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar", he throws the spotlight on fructose that makes up 50% of refined sugar and is found in most pre-made foods. A lot of scientific evidence shows that the increasing amount of sugar in our diet has led to the obesity epidemic especially amongst children. It's easy to understand why. He explains that there is no hormone to remove fructose from our bloodstream and therefore it is stored in the liver in the form of glucose. Excess sugar is returned to the blood in the form of fatty acids or triglycerides. These are taken to other parts of the body and stored in inactive areas like the belly, hips and thighs that can lead to weight gain. When these areas are filled to the maximum capacity, fatty acids may be transported to active organs like the heart and kidneys which put you at a further greater risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol. Moreover, heavy intake of sugar robs your body of the precious vitamins and minerals that are mobilized in chemical reactions to break it down and restore the acid-alkaline balance factor of the blood.

The new guideline by World Health Organization (WHO) recommends adults and children to restrict their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits. Free sugars refer to monosaccharides (such as glucose, fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) that are added to foods and drinks.

How to spot the hidden sugar you may not know you're eating

Two things. Your body doesn't need it physiologically but you can't resist it. It's everywhere and it's addictive. David Gillespie, a Brisbane-based lawyer turned researcher and author of the book 'Sweet Poison' explains that fructose does not satisfy hunger, so we continue to eat even when we have already eaten more than we need. His research is based on his own decision to stop eating sugar, resulting in him losing six stone without dieting in a year. He's right. Fructose suppresses the hormone leptin, which prompts us when we're full.  Therefore, your brain lets you consume it without limit. It also spikes the dopamine levels and activates the pleasure areas of the brain. Before you know it, you are trapped in a cycle of intense highs and lows and withdrawal can cause your blood sugar, hormones, metabolism and neurotransmitters to go out of balance.

Most of the sugar consumed today is hidden in processed foods. The thumb rule is to read your labels and read them carefully. Start with the ingredient list. Sugar can be added in various forms and know that artificial sweeteners can be as bad. In the spirit of sneaking in, manufacturers may disguise it using unfamiliar names. Learn the label lingo.

On the nutrition label, look for 'sugar' under carbohydrates. There might not be any differentiation between naturally-occurring sugars from fruits or milk solids and added sugars on the label.  Some brands do mention 'no added sugar' and by that we mean processed sugar. If the product has no fruit or milk in the ingredients, it is safe to assume that all of the sugars in the food are from added sugars.

Sometimes, the amount of sugar is given per serving. If the pack says 15 grams of sugar per serving, the total amount of sugar that you consume depends on how many servings you end up eating. You should start by comparing the 'portion size' (amount you eat) and 'serving size'. For instance, a company may pack two pastries in one package and the label reads 20 grams sugar for one serving which means that this figure relates to only one pastry. In another case, the quantity might be mentioned as per a standard value say 100 grams or 100 ml. Check for the serving size to calculate the amount of sugar you'll actually consume.

The hunt for hidden sugar

You expect desserts and sweets to be packed with sugar but what about ketchup and breakfast cereals? There are plenty of foods we may not realize that are full of sugar.

I was compelled to walk into the grocery store to find out the bitter truth about the sweet stuff. Aisle by aisle, leading brands were scrutinized, their nutritional labels compared and sugar quantities analyzed. All figures given here are approximate values. It's hard to crack the label and know for sure as these are only numbers and they don't speak much to a consumer. This is indicative of the fact that our labelling system desperately needs an overhaul and more transparency.  

1. Salad Dressings & Other Sauces

Bottled dressings, marinades and sauces are big offenders.  A small bottle (250 ml) of vinaigrette may hide about 9 teaspoons of sugar.  One tablespoon of vinaigrette can have as much as 2 grams of sugar so it doesn't help being generous. Ready-made sauces like 1000 island, caesar's and sweet chilli are easy ways to dress up your greens but they are also loaded with sugar. You'd be surprised to know that low fat dressings are pumped with more sugar to enhance the flavour. One of the brands of low fat sweet chilli sauce contained a whooping 43.95 grams per 100 grams (about 6 grams in 1 tablespoon). 

Most dressings and sauces may contain sugar in the form of corn syrup, glucose fructose syrup or liquid sugar. Look out for them. In the last few years, High Fructose Corn Syrup has creeped into most things we buy in a grocery store. It is derived from corn starch. Corn syrup isn't very sweet but once its glucose is converted into fructose and the corn syrup has been transformed into high-fructose corn syrup it becomes sweeter than sugar. Seeing this, your best bet would be to opt for light homemade dressings with olive oil or hung curd.

2. Flavoured Yogurt

Here's another sugar sinner that pretends to be a healthy snack. With the Probiotic craze, flavoured yogurts have reached the top of the shelf. Being a fan, it breaks my heart to say that it is nothing but a sugary treat. The milk used to make yogurt contains a naturally occurring sugar called lactose that adds to your daily nutrition. But most fruit yogurts also contain added sugar. For example, one cup of flavoured yogurt (about 100 grams) may contain roughly 3 teaspoons of sugar, that's half of your daily requirement as recommended by WHO. If you're a fan of fruity flavours, I'd suggest you throw in some fresh fruits in a bowl of homemade yogurt and stay refreshed.

3. Fruit Juice

Yet another food fad, juicing caught the diet world by storm. But health experts will tell you that packaged juices cannot be a part of your balanced diet. An analysis of about five brands of mixed fruit juice  revealed that a small tetra pack (200ml) can contain up to 4 teaspoons of sugar. Let's be clear, drinking your calories is as bad as eating them.

4. Muesli

Muesli has gained a good rep for being high in fiber, filling and a wholesome meal. You'd be surprised to know that your go-to health food is packed with extra sugar and of all kinds. Check the ingredient list for malt extract, invert sugar, honey and apple juice concentrate - there's a lot hiding in your morning meal. Moreover, the addition of dried fruits can ramp up the sugar content. When the water is drained out, dried fruits have more sugar by volume. It makes for a quick breakfast option but if your muesli is roasted it may contain unnecessary saturated fats and carbs.

5. Ketchup

Unfortunately, one of the most widely consumed condiments turns out to be a secret sugar bomb. You never suspected a thing, did you? All those times when you licked it off your fingers.  You may have not known but your ketchup addiction is basically a sugar addiction. According to WHO analysis, 1 tablespoon of ketchup contains around 4 grams (around 1 teaspoon) of free sugars. And how many times do we actually manage to squeeze out only one tablespoon?

6. Digestive Biscuits

Those seemingly innocent digestive cookies you've been nibbling on between meals, at breakfast or with your evening cup of day, speak for sugar. Digestive biscuits boast of a long list of benefits - packed with fiber and aid digestion - but they also contain tons of sugar. This sneaky culprit can undo your health efforts without you even knowing. A small pack of 250 grams can contain about 13 teaspoons of sugar! A lot became clear during our taste test in a quest to find the best digestive biscuits. One of the leading brands mentioned the use of partially inverted sugar syrup which is added because it gives a smooth mouth feel. Read the ingredient labels to sure about what you're getting. A much healthier alternative would be to make granola bars at home. They're easier to make than you think.

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7. Soft Drinks

By now, you already know that fizzy drinks are bad for your health and that a can of fizzy drink can give you a sugar shock is no secret. But do you know how much sugar you're drinking? A single can of sugar-sweetened soda contains up to 40 grams (around 10 teaspoons) of free sugars, as per WHO analysis.


The United States has been fighting a war against sugar for long with food companies selling oversized snack foods and restaurants offering free refills for soft drinks. Several attempts to legislate the 'sugar tax' have been beaten down. In India, as trade becomes easy, more and more processed foods are finding their place in our refrigerators and on our dinner tables. The idea is not to shun these foods but to be more watchful about what and how much you eat. At home, you could switch to healthier versions of sugar like raw honey, coconut sugar or jaggery, but as with everything excess consumption can lead to negative consequences.

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