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Sugar is notoriously sneaky—without even realizing it, you might be eating more than you think. Consider this: A bowl of cereal for breakfast, a deli sandwich for lunch, and a salad with store-bought dressing for dinner are all surprisingly high sources of sugar. Even though all three meals seem like healthy choices, you could be racking up a whopping 42 grams of sugar. (That’s almost one half the recommended daily amount of 100 grams of sugar.)

For the most part, sugar in your diet isn’t great—it’s been linked to heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and weight gain (not to mention tooth decay).

But not all sugar is created equal.

“Sugar isn’t in and of itself evil,” says Doug Cook, a Functional Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian in Toronto, Ontario. “Sugar’s major role is as a source of energy, so context is everything.”

When you think of sugar, you probably picture the snow-white stuff added to baked goods and dumped by the tablespoon into soda. This is called added sugars. Added sugars are extracted from foods like sugar beets and sugar cane. As it goes through multiple steps of refinement you’re just left with simple sugars, says Cook. “Too much sugar can contribute to poor glycemic control, increased calorie intake, and weight gain.”

But that doesn’t mean your sweet tooth is doomed. Natural sugars—those found in nutritious foods like fruits and veggies—can actually provide nutritional value. “The source of the sugar isn’t relevant,” says Cook. The difference is that natural sugars found in whole foods have other good things like vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fibre—things that can affect the rate at which the sugar is absorbed.”

The one thing that’s clear about sugar is that too much of it is bad for your health. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends reducing your daily intake of added sugars and Health Canada is changing the food label requirements to reflect a new daily value (%DV) for sugar. For an ‘average’ adult eating 2,000 calories per day, the recommended daily value for sugar is 100 grams. This means a total of 100 grams of sugar, from all sources—natural and added—per day. “Don’t hang your hat on that number,” says Cook. “It’s just a starting point and must be individualized based on your needs and health goals.”

Natural sugars are less concerning. “The way sugar shows up in whole foods is self-limiting,” says Cook. It’s harder to consume too much sugar when you eat whole foods. “How quickly and easily can you eat one Big Mac© versus seven apples?”

“For all intents and purposes, natural and added sugars have the same effect. The difference is that it’s so easy to over consume things like juice that don’t have the fibre and other nutrients found in whole fruit,” says Cook.

Limiting your sugar intake isn’t always as simple as cutting back on dessert and switching to diet soda. Sugar is hiding everywhere—even in foods that don’t taste sweet, including bread, tomato sauce, and almond butter (yes, really). Told you it was sneaky.

On top of that, sugar can hide behind dozens of different names. There are more than 60 different names for sugar listed on food labels. Cane juice crystals, sorghum syrup, barley malt, corn syrup, dextran, dextrose, and fructose are just a few of sugar’s aliases that might show up on an ingredient label.

“Sugars are naturally found in milk, yogurt, fruit, and some vegetables,” says Cook. “Sugar can be added to anything, especially packaged, processed, and manufactured foods.”

Think you can outsmart sugar? Test your knowledge with this quiz to find out some of the most surprising places sugar is hiding.

green apple and pink donut

Think you can outsmart sugar? Test your knowledge with this quiz to find out some of the most surprising places sugar is hiding.

Student tips for reducing sugar intake

“One of the best ways to keep your sugar intake down is to avoid sugary drinks like pop or Gatorade.”
—Shelby O., first-year undergraduate, St. Clair College, Ontario, Canada 

“Preparing healthy lunches and snacks before your day begins so that you are not inclined to grab something quick and unhealthy when hunger strikes.”
—Maggie H., third-year undergraduate, Memorial University, Newfoundland and Labrador

“Eat something sweet that has less sugar (fruit, yogurt, etc).”
—Tatiana L., third-year undergraduate, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

“I keep track of my sugar intake using an app I learned about from Student Health 101. The app is called Fooducate.”
—Jessica F., fourth-year graduate student, The Ohio State University

“I typically don’t buy sweets for myself because I’ve noticed they are everywhere. So I have a rule that if someone gives me something sweet or when I am going out I will have something but I won’t buy it day to day. I also don’t drink coffee or tea because I like them very sweet, so I treat those drinks more like dessert and less like an everyday thing.”
—Lisa L.*, first-year graduate student, University of Waterloo, Ontario

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Article sources

Photography credit: Erica Hudson

Doug Cook, RD, Functional Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian, Toronto, Ontario.

Lisa Moskovitz, RD, nutritionist, New York, New York.

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Joanna Carmona is communications coordinator at the National Patient Safety Foundation. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Student Health 101. She has also edited collegiate textbooks for Cengage Learning and creating language learning materials for the US Department of Defense, libraries, and other educational institutions. Her BA in Spanish is from the University of New Hampshire.

Macaela Mackenzie is a graduate of Northwestern University and a freelance journalist for Self, Shape, Women's Health, and Allure, among others.