Why is this bad?
Sugar is addictive.
Really, the problem with sugar is that it just makes you crave more sugar. When sugar enters your body, it causes the chemical serotonin to be released, which triggers your brain’s reward center and makes you feel more relaxed. That’s fine; the problem is that constantly eating too much sugar dulls this feel-good response so it takes larger amounts of sugar to get there — meaning the more you eat, the more you need.
We definitely eat too much of it.
Every nutritionist interviewed for this post recommends we consume less than half the amount of sugar most Americans actually consume. The World Health Organization allows for more in their recommendation but may soon cut that number in half. Depending on who you ask, you should probably consume no more than 6 teaspoons/25 grams of added sugar per day, which accounts for 5% of your daily caloric intake, instead of the 13% most people are currently getting from sugar.
And, too much of any kind makes us fat.
Sugar by any other name is still sugar, and it all has the same number of calories: 4 calories per gram. The reason high-fructose corn syrup gets so much negative press is because it’s higher in fructose than regular table sugar, and there is a difference in the way glucose and fructose are metabolized. “Glucose first goes to the bloodstream to be used as energy, while fructose goes straight to the liver and gets stored as fat,” explains nutritionist Dana James, M.S., C.N.S., C.D.N., of Food Coach NYC. But both types make you crave more sugar and eventually get stored as fat. “When sugar and other carbs are digested and converted to glucose, the glucose stimulates insulin, which is a fat storage hormone. You can only use so much glucose for energy; the rest is stored as fat.” So, too much of any kind of sugar will make you fat.
Now let us begin with the heartbreak.
1. Odwalla Original Superfood Drink: 37 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: apple juice, peach, mango, strawberry, and banana purees
Sure, the sugar comes from fruit juices and purees, but it’s still sugar. “The only benefit that one source of sugar has over another is what a food contains in addition to sugar,” says James. “So, yes, fruit juice has vitamins and minerals in addition to sugar. But, from a blood-sugar perspective and a weight-gain perspective, the sugar in juice is identical to the sugar in candy.” Yikes. Amy Shapiro, M.S., R.D., of Real Nutrition NYC, is wary of fruit juice, as well: “It adds calories to your day, because research shows that calories we drink don’t actually prevent us from being hungry later.” You’re better off eating real fruit, which contains fiber that keeps you fuller longer.
2. Jamba Juice Banana Berry Smoothie (small): 60 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: bananas, nonfat frozen yogurt (ingredient list unavailable), blueberries, raspberry sherbert (ingredient list unavailable)
Sure, you’re slurping some fruit, but you’re also slurping the equivalent of about 15 teaspoons of sugar. “Smoothies are dangerous because they often have things mixed in, like syrups or frozen yogurt, that just add more sugar,” says Shapiro, who isn’t a big fan of smoothies and suggests just eating fresh fruit instead; biting into a crunchy apple is far more satisfying than slurping down blueberry puree. “If you have to get one, stick with a small, or make your own and instead of yogurt or sweetener, add some fat in the form of nuts or nut butter.” The fat will help your body absorb the nutrients from the fruit and will fill you up a little more (no point spending $7 on a smoothie if you’re just going to be starving two hours later).
3. McDonald’s Fruit & Maple Oatmeal: 32 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: sugar, apples, cranberries, California raisins, golden raisins, brown sugar
First of all, oatmeal is a carb, and carbs get converted to glucose in the bloodstream, just like sugar. “By pairing oatmeal with dried fruit and maple syrup,” says Shapiro, “you’re just adding sugar, not balancing it with any protein or fat. Top it with fresh fruit, which has less sugar, and add a tablespoon of nuts, which have fat that will help keep you full for longer.”
Beyond that, James warns against store-bought oatmeal itself. “Most people are having ‘quick oats,’ which are more processed and have less than 2 grams of fiber per serving. People think oats are healthy, but they’re pretty much a morning sugar bomb.”
4. Dunkin’ Donuts Reduced-Fat Blueberry Muffin: 40 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: sugar, blueberries, blueberry juice extract, high-fructose corn syrup
“The calories in reduced-fat versions of baked goods are usually about the same as the original version, since they increase the sugar content to make up for taking out fat,” says Shapiro. “Something to remember is that excess sugar is stored as fat anyway, so something that’s higher sugar and lower fat isn’t any better than something high-fat with less sugar.”
5. Chobani Black Cherry Blended Yogurt: 28 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: black cherries, evaporated cane juice, cherry juice concentrate
Turns out, fruit-flavored yogurts are sweetened with more than just fruit. Shapiro’s thoughts: “I’m not a fan of the fruit-flavored yogurts, because they do have a ton of added sugar. Yogurt has naturally occurring sugar from the lactose, so that added sugar is just extra.” A better bet is eating unsweetened yogurt with fresh fruit on top. Stephanie Middleberg, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. of Middleberg Nutrition, agrees: “If you’re adding sugar, you really only should be having a teaspoon at a time.” That’s far more than the 7 teaspoons of sugar in Chobani’s Black Cherry Blended yogurt.
6. Stonyfield Fat-Free Blackberry Blend Yogurt: 28g sugar
Where the sugar comes from: organic sugar, organic blackberry puree, organic elderberry juice concentrate
Organic doesn’t necessarily mean healthier. “Any kind of sugar, organic or regular, has the same number of calories,” Shapiro explains. “Your body digests it the same way.” Steer clear of flavored yogurts (see No. 4, above).
7. Burger King Chicken, Apple & Cranberry Garden Fresh Salad with TENDERGRILL® Chicken: 38 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: apples, sweet dried cranberries, high fructose-corn syrup, apple juice concentrate, sugar
Be wary of salads containing dried fruit, Shapiro says. “A simple salad can go from 400 to 700 calories, just by adding dried cranberries, since people often have a heavy hand with toppings.” Even if you’re careful about portion sizes, “cranberries are naturally tart, so there’s usually sugar added to dried cranberries.” Salad dressings are also something to watch out for, especially those that are fat-free. “Regular salad dressings don’t increase sugar counts dramatically, but fat-free salad dressings have much more sugar, since it makes up for the lack of fat, flavor-wise.” Try to steer clear of dried fruits as a salad topping (fresh apple slices are a great way to add sweetness), and go with full-fat vinaigrettes instead of creamy dressings or fat-free versions.
8. Pom Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice (8-ounce bottle): 31 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: pomegranate juice from concentrate
“Yes, Pom has antioxidants,” Shapiro says, “but you’re better off eating a pomegranate. Or, dilute it with water or seltzer.”
James suggests: “If you want to drink Pom juice, drink it after you work out, when you’ve depleted your glycogen stores.” This way, the sugar will be used as energy instead of being stored as fat. “Ideally, drink no more than 8 ounces at a time.”
9. Snapple Green Tea (16-ounce bottle): 30 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: sugar
Green tea is good for you, but all of that added sugar pretty much cancels out all the benefits. “A teaspoon of sugar in your tea isn’t so bad, when you add it yourself,” says Shapiro — but most bottles of sweetened tea pack at least five times that much.
10. Raisins (one-quarter cup): 29 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: just the raisins
Raisins are good for you, right? They’re just grapes and sunshine. Well, yes and no. “Ideally, a serving of raisins is two tablespoons,” says Shapiro. Uh…that’s like, 15 raisins — one-third of one of those tiny boxes. Think about it this way: You probably wouldn’t sit down and eat an ENTIRE bag of grapes, but you could easily chow down on an entire cup of raisins. Dried fruit, no matter how you spin it, is far too easy to eat in huge quantities.
11. IHOP Whole Wheat Pancakes with Banana (four pancakes, no syrup): 32 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: sugar, bananas
Don’t be fooled by marketing lingo. “People think that ‘whole wheat’ products are so much healthier,” says James. “But generally, they have the same number of carbs [as refined flour products], which all get converted into sugar. Maybe there are a couple of grams of fiber, but not much.” Instead of trying to be healthy by ordering a big stack of whole wheat pancakes with fruit (all sugary carbs, no filling fat or protein), just order a smaller stack of two buttermilk pancakes, with two eggs (9 grams sugar). The protein from the eggs will hold you over until lunch.
12. Vitamin Water Power-C: 32 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: fructose, sugar
In fact, every flavor of regular Vitamin Water (not Vitamin Water Zero, which is sweetened with stevia and sugar alcohols) has at least 31 grams of sugar. Yikes. Shapiro argues that there is really no excuse for drinking these flavored “water” beverages. “There are flavored waters out there with no calories,” she says. Middleberg doesn’t even recommend calorie-free “vitamin-fortified” waters: “They say there are vitamins in here, but it’s really just sugar water. They aren’t natural vitamins, so the quality of the vitamins will never be as high as if you were getting them from actual food.”
13. VitaCoco Coconut water with pineapple (per 16-ounce container): 30 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: coconut, pineapple puree, coconut puree
If you’re going to drink coconut water, always stick to the original, unflavored kind, which has less sugar. “Coconut water makes an OK hydrator, during or after exercise, in the place of sports drinks,” Shapiro says. And, on a really hot day when you’re extremely thirsty, a single cup of coconut water (11 grams sugar) can be refreshing. Just don’t overdo it. Remember that regular water is a pretty good hydrator too, with no sugar at all.
14. Chili’s Caribbean Chicken Salad with Grilled Chicken: 67 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: fresh pineapple, mandarin oranges, dried cranberries, honey-lime dressing (ingredient list for dressing is unavailable)
While this dish actually steers clear of the usual salad “fat traps” — think cheese, creamy dressings, nuts, fried crouton garnishes — it’s a serious sugar bomb. Sure, the pineapples and mandarin oranges are naturally sweet. But, the dried cranberries and honey-lime dressing have a ton of added sugar. And while the protein from the chicken will help balance out the sugar a bit, 67 grams is twice as much sugar as the WHO’s recommended daily intake (for a salad!).
15. Juice Generation Amazing Green Açai Bowl: 41 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: açai, banana
Sure, it has all kinds of “superfoods,” but this bowl is essentially just a smoothie with seeds and granola on top. “I tell people to steer clear of anything with more than 15 grams sugar per serving,” Middleberg says. “That’s about the amount of sugar in a large apple.” Fruit isn’t a bad thing, but smoothies and blended fruit bowls make it easy to eat too much in one sitting.
16. Starbucks Greek Yogurt and Honey Parfait: 30 grams sugar
Where the sugar comes from: milled cane sugar, honey, barley malt syrup, cranberries, sugar, elderberry juice concentrate, sugar
“Honey is glorified sugar,” says James. “It’s got a health halo, but it’s glorified sugar.” It has the same glycemic index — meaning it affects your blood sugar in the same way, giving you a temporary spike in energy and then leaving you hungry and craving more sugar soon after — as sugar. And, while adding a small amount of honey (there are only about 9 grams of sugar in 2 teaspoons), some pre-packaged honey-and-yogurt parfaits have as much as one-quarter cup of honey (67 grams sugar). The takeaway? Make your own, so that you can control the amount of sugar you add. If you’re on the go, choose a parfait that’s just plain yogurt and fresh fruit, with no added sweetener. The Greek Yogurt with Berries Parfait at Starbucks has 19 grams of sugar, making it a better option.
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