Let's talk sugar!

When it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, limiting your sugar consumption is likely at the top of the priority list. But are you aware of all of the hidden sources of sugar that could be impacting your health? 

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I try to strike a balance when it comes to sweet treats. Food is to be enjoyed and cherished, so I let my kids enjoy refined sugar occasionally, but I have to be honest - I'm a little more strict right now with them being back at school and the recent spikes in infections.  

Refined sugar in excess can cause impaired immune health, disturbance in our gut microbiome, cause inflammation, and hormonal imbalance.

Our bodies can handle sugar, and if you are metabolically healthy, occasional treats will not affect your health. However, 7 out of 8 Americans are NOT metabolically healthy. So when they eat sugar, it has repercussions on their health. 

The typical western diet is so overridden with sugar that the overload becomes a burden to our immune, liver, and gut health. There is sugar in EVERYTHING - ketchup, yogurt, milk, granola bars, cereal, coffee, tea, you get the gist.

Food companies add sugar to get us hooked and buy more. Since consumers have woken up to the fact that too much sugar is bad for us, companies now try to disguise sugar in many different ways - from changing the name to misleading labels and marketing strategies, they have become masters at concealing sugar in their products. 



How Companies Hide Sugar Content

Disguising the Name

One of the main things food companies do to hide sugar is to change the name from ‘sugar’ to something that seems to be healthier. 

Food companies get creative when it comes to naming sugar on their ingredient list. For dry and liquid sugar, there are about 40+ different names they can use to disguise sugar. 

Of course, there are the typical pseudo names, such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose. But now that health-conscious people know to look for those, they have started using even more specific terms, because sugar comes in so many different forms. 

For dry sugar, here are a few additional names: 

  • Anything with ‘sugar’ in the name (coconut sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar, date sugar, etc.)
  • Barley malt
  • Ethyl maltol
  • Maltodextrin
  • Dextrin
  • Dextrose
  • Maltose
  • Mannose
  • Saccharose
  • Panela 

The list goes on and on - there are about 40 different names companies can use to disguise sugar in packaged foods. 

And for liquid sugar, it is usually added in the form of a ‘syrup.’ So keep an eye out for any ingredients with ‘syrup’ added to the end, as well as: 

  • Agave nectar 
  • Honey 
  • Molasses 

Misleading Marketing

Food companies hide sugar by promoting claims like ‘no refined sugar’ or ‘refined sugar-free.’ 

In reality, this wording simply means no white sugar in the product, not that there is no added sugar. 

Food companies will also switch out white sugar for a healthier option, such as coconut sugar or agave.  

While these healthier sugars are easier to digest, have a lower glycemic index, and are marketed as more nutritious, they can still spike your blood sugar and insulin, leading to metabolic problems down the line. 

Also, watch out for products marketed as ‘low-fat’ or ‘diet.’ Most of these foods are low-fat because they are incredibly high in sugar!   

Confusing Labels

Did you know those food companies are required to list the ingredients by the highest mass in the product to the lowest? 

To bypass this, food companies will use multiple sugar types in one product, so the amount of each sugar is low. 

Because of this, you might not see any form of sugar in a product until near the end… 

But the trick here is that when you add up all of the sugar, it qualifies as one of the main ingredients. 

When you are reading the label, make sure to verify the serving size portion. 

Food companies will decrease the serving size to a small and unrealistic amount to reduce the amount of sugar listed on the label.

Keep in mind that the amount of sugar listed there is per serving, not per container. 

A food company's ingredient label may even trick you by using many different types of sugar in one product.

Unexpected Sources of Sugar 

Hidden sugar is almost everywhere these days; sometimes, I believe it has become harder now to find foods with the sugar in plain sight.  

Along with reading your ingredient labels, make sure to be cautious of these foods that contain hidden sugar. 


Yogurt - Even non-dairy yogurts can contain a ton of hidden sugar, mostly low-fat and flavored yogurts. 

Sauces - Everything from spaghetti sauce to ketchup, and especially BBQ sauce!

Protein bars - Protein is a very satisfying nutrient, and protein bars can be an excellent snack for those of you on the go. But some bars can contain up to 20g of sugar, so read your labels first and try to find bars with natural sources of sugar (like dates).

Cereal - An easy and quick breakfast, especially for kids. But it is also packed with sugar and low in fiber, so it can leave them feeling hungry within a few hours. When shopping for cereal, try to find high fiber to slow the sugar digestion. 

Canned foods - This includes canned baked beans, soups, and fruits. 


Fruit Juice - There are a few vitamins and minerals present, but it becomes a massive serving of sugar without the fiber. 

Sports Drinks - Gatorade, Vitamin Water, and Powerade are all packed with sugar. Typically, these drinks are for athletes during intense workouts for a quick boost of energy. But unless you are a professional athlete, I would steer clear of these sugary drinks. 

Pre-made Smoothies -  Before you stop at your local Tropical Smoothie, take a look at what is really in your cup. If they contain loads of fruit juice and syrups they become a hidden sugar source instead of a healthy breakfast. 

Flavored Coffee and Tea- Frappuccinos, lattes, and even iced teas. These popular beverages contain tons of sweetened milk and flavored syrups, which is just sugar in disguise. 

The bottom line is that you need to know where to find it to be aware of how much sugar you are consuming! 

The best thing you can do when it comes to packaged food is to turn the packet over and read the nutritional label - look for the 'added sugars' section to see how much sugar has been added to the product, and watch out for a trick some companies use to make this number look lower - by adjusting the portion size to be smaller... I am a proponent for being informed about what you are consuming, so you can feel empowered.

Now, when it comes to baking and cooking at home, a lot of people ask me what the best form of sweetener is, so I'm breaking it down here. 


Try to avoid the following...

Table sugar & high fructose corn syrup - These are in the majority of all conventional processed foods. A little won’t hurt, but try to avoid consuming large doses. 

Cane sugar - Less refined than table sugar but really adds very little nutritional value and will spike your blood sugar and insulin (this hormone makes you put on fat). Common in processed foods and I am ok with it in small amounts because it is hard to avoid in packaged food, but I don't keep it as an ingredient in the house or use in my cooking.

Brown rice/rice syrup - These are in my opinion not much better than table sugar, and I avoid them especially since they could be a source of arsenic. 

Agave syrup - This one catches people out because it is touted as a low glycemic index (i.e. does not spike blood sugar). Whilst that is true, it can be a concentrated source of fructose. Don’t get me wrong, I am fine with fructose in fruits which is bound up in fiber and released much more slowly. Concentrated fructose in syrup or liquid form, however, is another story.  It is absorbed and released rapidly into the blood stream, puts a heavy burden on our liver and in excess has been associated with fatty liver and poor metabolic health. Agave is not the healthy alternative people make it. Use sparingly. 

Artificial sweeteners - Saccharin (Sweet'N Low, SugarTwin) Acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One), Sucralose (Splenda), Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) have all been found to affect the gut microbiome and alter our metabolism so I avoid these. I share more about artificial sweeteners later in this article. 


What about stevia and other 'healthy' sweeteners? 


There are two types of sweeteners: Nutritive and Non-nutritive. 

Nutritive - contain calories e.g. honey, maple syrup

Non-nutritive - provides no calories e.g. Splenda, Stevia, monk fruit

Let’s take a look at some common non-nutritive ones:

Stevia - is 200 times sweetener than sugar, and most people are familiar with stevia in the form of an extract, rather than whole leaf. Stevia extracts add no calories, and can be a great choice as a non-nutritive sweetener. The caveat is how it is processed and whether anything has been added to it. The extraction process may involve harmful chemicals, and many stevia sweeteners have been bleached and contain additives like ‘natural flavor’. These ‘extracts’ may also have an impact on our gut microbiome. Ironically, FDA has approved stevia extract Rebaudioside A (Reb A), but not the whole leaf. But personally, if I was to use stevia, I look for whole leaf stevia - which is basically ground up dried stevia leaves which should not contain any chemical residuals from the extraction process and fillers. If you have green thumbs, try growing stevia in your garden! 

Whole leaf stevia may also have added benefits like cholesterol regulation. 

Monk fruit

Monk fruit reminds me of my childhood when my grandma would brew teas using the whole fruit. Again, what we know as ‘monk fruit’ nowadays in the west does not resemble the fruit itself - we usually see it as an extracted form. It is also known as a non-nutritive sweetener and can deliver that sweet taste without much of an effect on blood sugar. However, many are blended with sugar alcohols like erythritol so if you have GI issues, this may cause bloating. 

Artificial sweeteners

As explained above in the avoid list, ther non-nutritive sweeteners like sucralose (splenda), aspartame (Equol) are big no-no’s in my books. These have been shown to negatively affect our gut microbiome and linked to insulin resistance. Steer clear of these. 

Now here is the twist.

Although non-nutritive sweeteners do not provide calories or increase our blood sugar, they might still trigger our reward system in the brain and lead to more sugar cravings/increased appetite. Non-nutritive sweeteners like Monk fruit and stevia are a lot sweeter than sugar and when we consume them, our sweet taste receptors are activated.  These ‘hyper-palatable foods’ can then trigger our reward system and can lead to overeating or more sugar cravings. More research is needed in this area, but for now, I would use monk fruit and whole leaf stevia in small amounts. It's not a free for ALL for me as I personally believe it can lead to overeating. 

What about sugar alcohols?

There are two main ones. 

  1. Erythritol - this is almost a non-nutritive sweetener because it only provides 0.24 calories per gram, so the caloric contribution is minimal. Most of erythritol — about 90% — gets absorbed in the gut and so it is less likely than the other sugar alcohols to cause GI upsets like diarrhoea and bloating  The consumption of erythritol has also been shown to stimulate the secretion of Glucagon-like 29 peptide 1 (GLP-1) and cholecystokinin (CCK), two gut peptides released in response to nutrient intake and so even though it might not raise blood sugar, it might still have a metabolic effect in the body, and we also don’t know its consequence on our microbiome. 
  2. Xylitol - absorbed less than erythritol, so can be passed into the the large intestine causing bloating and diarrhoea in some people. It can also cause a small rise in blood sugar and insulin. 

So out of the two, erythritol is a better choice although it may still cause GI upset in some people. 

What I use:

My favorite way to sweeten things is to use bananas or a homemade date paste. Simply soak 10 pitted dates in water for 4-5 hours then blend into a smooth liquid/paste. If I want a slightly thicker and sweeter paste I use 1/2 cup water. If I want a more runny consistency, I blend with 1 cup water. 

A product that I have been loving lately is Molassity, I've been using it over my pancakes and enjoying a pomegranate spritzer here and there, because it is made from one of the superfoods I love: Pomegranates. Use code 'DrChen15' for 15% off at checkout to try it! 

In my opinion, this is a better option than maple syrup.

I also use the more natural nutritive sweeteners like coconut sugar (my favorite brand is Big Tree), because it has a lower glycemic index than table sugar, and contains way less fructose (only about 9%, compared to cane sugar which is 50%). 

Honey, pure maple syrup, blackstrap molasses are also other great options I use - they contain some micronutrients. Obviously, if you are vegan, honey is not for you. In excess, these will still cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin. 

In reality, what I often do is combine whole-leaf stevia or monk fruit with coconut sugar or maple syrup - this allows me to add a sweet taste while using smaller amounts of both. 

If you want healthier comfort food recipes like chocolate mousse, cupcakes, pizza, check out my Comfort Foods ebook (10% off via this link) which has healthier recipes to satisfy those cravings. 


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