Hidden sugars in food

Occasionally I read labels on food to see what is in there. I’m not particularly strict about diet, but I try to limit the amount of processed sugar added to food. Too much sugar can have bad effects.

  • Weight gain / obesity (not an issue for myself)
  • Blood sugar spikes affecting mood and energy levels
  • Diabetes and a whole host of health problem.

added-sugars in food

For me the main issue with processed sugar is the spikes in blood sugar which can disrupt metabolism and give you both surges of energy and then crashes afterwards. Even though I don’t put on weight from eating sugar, I don’t think too much is healthy.

I quite like eating a bit of cake, and the odd biscuit, but the thing that seems strange to me is the huge quantities of sugar put in savoury items. For breakfast, I always dig out the no-added sugar muesli and no-added sugar soya milk. Some dried fruit is enough to make the muesli sweat and tasty, adding even more processed sugar seems unnecessary.

Yesterday, I bought a black bean source from Tesco – ‘All the finest ingredients’. This is a bit of a joke because the biggest ingredient (after water) was sugar. In one serving (half a jar) there is 30 grams of carbohydrate which sugars. This is 33% of your recommended daily intake in just a sauce!

To put that into context, it is like making your evening meal and then adding 8 teaspoons of sugar on to the sauce. Or, it’s the equivalent of three kit-kats (6 fingers).You can get a better taste from Vegetarian gravy and onion frying a few vegetables.

If I’m going to take 8 teaspoons of sugar, I’d rather stick to the three kit-kats than get a sugar hit from a Chinese sauce.

This black bean sauce is not a one off, I looked at other sauces like Tomato and Basil, and there is a very high level of sugar (20-25 grams) per serving.

Sugar is even added to granary bread. But at relatively low levels of 1-2grams it doesn’t seem such an issue. But, when you are putting 30grams in a pot of ‘low-fat yoghurt’ or cooking sauces, it seems something has gone wrong.

Getting used to the taste of sugar

Another element is that you can get used to certain tastes. If all your food is heavily sugar laden, this is what you begin to crave, and if the sugar is missing, you don’t think it tastes so good. But, if you avoid sugar in savoury items, you can learn to enjoy the taste of food as it is supposed to be. There was a time when I didn’t like vegetables, and would want Heinz Baked beans (with lots of added sugar). But, now the baked beans taste too sweet and sickly; there is great flavour in savoury foods and well-cooked vegetables. It’s sad if the only taste we can enjoy is sugar.

The problem is that as a food manufacturer if you want to appeal to the easiest palate to appease – just shove a load of sugar in your food and you can’t go wrong (from a commercial perspective). If you leave sugar out, people don’t think it tastes so good and sales go down. So it’s a crazy system where you there is an incentive to add ever-increasing amounts of sugar to food like cereal, sauces, ‘low fat yogurts’ e.t.c. So much sugar has been added that it has changed the nations palette, so that we crave sugar. But, it is very bad for health, and also it is completely unnecessary for creating attractive and tasty food.

Protein bars and sugar

I always assumed that a protein bar / protein sugar was a good source of protein and a low GI food, but actually you can also be taking a lot of processed sugar in these.

I noticed that the Power Bar Protein (Amazon link) was particularly tasty. I really enjoy eating. I looked at label and realised there is 19 gram of sugars. With a host of added sugars in the ingredient list  – including sugar, fructose, cane invert syrup, oligofructose, maltitol syrup. It includes fractionated palm kernel oil for good measure.

In a bar there is 19g of carb which sugars and 17 gram of protein.

When you eat a protein bar, you think it is a healthy snack, and don’t realise it is also like eating two kit kats. You do need  carbohydrate in recovery, as well as protein. But, slow release carbs would probably be better than these direct sugars.

I looked at another protein bar – Cliff Protein Bar which doesn’t taste as good. But, interestingly it had a similar level of added sugars (21 grams per bar). So the one that tasted really good, didn’t have much more sugar than the other one.

Also, perhaps in response to concerns like this, you can get reduced sugar Protein bars – with just 9gram of carb per protein bar (3 grams which sugars).

Sugar can come in many forms, such as (but not limited to)

  • corn sugar / syrup
  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • glucose
  • high-fructose glucose syrup
  • honey
  • maple syrup
  • agave syrup
  • invert sugar
  • isoglucose
  • levulose
  • maltose
  • molasses
  • sucrose

Other surprising sources of sugar

  • Barbecue sauce – some small packs can contain  8 grams of added sugar
  • Flavoured yogurt – 20grams per 200g pot.
  • Some brands of Granola: 5 teaspoons (19 grams) of added sugar in 1 cup
  • Some large ‘chai’ drinks can contain up to 25 teaspoons of sugar (Guardian)

Added sugar and cycling

As a general rule, when training and resting, it is advisable to get energy needs from healthy foods – complex carbs, protein, and minimise processed foods, and in particular minimise added sugar. When doing endurance training it is good to improve your capacity to gain fuel from fat burning and complex carbs. If you go out on long training, you could eat cake all day, in the sense you burn off the calories, but it is better to train without these instant processed sugars.

However, when racing or intense interval sessions, this is the time to make use of high GI sugars, because it will be used straight away and will not be stored creating the problems of taking sugar when sedentary.

The good news is that if you are cycling several hours a day, you will get through a lot more calories, and there is greater scope for ‘burning off’ added sugars. But, even so, it is a food source of low nutritional value, and it is better to get a diet which doesn’t have added sugar as such a staple item.

Related articles

Economics of sugar tax

On my economics blog, I wrote in favour of a tax on sugar


5 thoughts on “Hidden sugars in food”

  1. I make the majority of my food from scratch, although I do still enjoy a a sweet treat occasionally. What iv noticed though is that if I add any sugar to my cooking, say a teaspoon to a tomato sauce it can become very sweet. Conversely processed foods with high levels of added sugars and salt often taste incredibly bland. Iv started making my own flapjacks to take out on rides, which taste a lot better and if you use ripe bananas you can cut down on the amount of added sugars.

  2. Be careful with the dried fruit – Holland and Barrett add sugar to dried cranberries. Adding sugar to a dried fruit has to be some sort of joke I would have thought but this is their disingenuous reason for doing it;

    “…..our dried cranberries contain added sugar in order to counteract the natural tartness of the product and also so the product benefits from the natural preservative properties of sugar.”

  3. Hey, hope you’re well Tejvan.

    Just thought I’d weigh-in on your bullet points at the top because I’ve read a ridiculous amount of scientific literature on this.

    1) Not an issue for any human. Look up “De novo lipogenesis” – CHO to Fat conversion in humans is incredibly hard and inefficient to achieve and only happens under conditions of prolonged overfeeding. Most excess CHO is literally burned off as excess heat energy if it isn’t used for exercise/ATP.

    2) Mythology/placebo effect. Sugar enhances mood through dopamine production among other things. This is an evolutionary mechanism which rewards us for consuming the correct fuel source to survive. Through our evolutionary journey, we have always had sugar with some source of fibre so it should be no surprise that you don’t get massive spikes in blood sugar if you eat sugar with porridge, via fruit, etc.

    3) Type 2 Diabetes is caused by Saturated Fat. It’s toxic to the pancreas, reduces insulin sensitivity within hours of consumption and kills liver cells very well. On the contrary, Walter Kempner was a doctor who showed you can cure/reverse Type 2 Diabetes with a diet of only rice and fruit which is almost all CHO.


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