10 Easy Ways to Reduce Added Sugar

Added sugar isn't necessary, and can be detrimental to our health. Learn the tricks of reducing added sugar and where to find it hiding!

girl or woman chooses brown sugar and puts the coffee in a cafePhoto: Shutterstock / Focus and Blur

Sugar is everywhere in the American diet, from cereals and salad dressings to yogurt and, of course, decadent chocolate desserts. Reducing added sugar has its benefits, from heart health to prevention of chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. But what are added sugars? Added sugars are just that, added. Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruits, dairy foods like plain yogurt and milk, and even vegetables like beets and carrots. In order to cut back added sugar it’s important for us to understand more about it.

Psst! Looking for low-sugar snacks? We’ve got oodles, right here.

America’s Sugar Cravings

We eat a lot of sugar in the United States, about 34 teaspoons a day on average. Of those 34 teaspoons, 17 come from added sugar, which far surpass the recommended 12 teaspoons per day.

Here’s a quick math lesson: One teaspoon of sugar is equal to 4 grams of sugar, so a product with 16 grams of added sugar has 4 teaspoons of added sugar. Here’s another example, one soda has almost 40 grams of sugar, which is 10 teaspoons of added sugar.

From an early age, Americans are conditioned to like sweeter foods. From chocolate to yogurt to bread, our foods have more sugar in than other parts of the world. Food manufacturers really started to ramp up added sugar in the 1990s, when we thought too much fat was making us unhealthy. Fat adds so much flavor that it had to be replaced by something else, cue the sugar overload. Even though we’ve made amends with the fat-free craze, we still find sugar in foods where it’s just not needed.

Sneaky Sugars

Added sugar can be found in ketchup, vinegar, cereals, salad dressings and many other processed foods, but sugar isn’t always listed in plain sight. When scouting for added sugar it’s important to look at the ingredient list, not just the nutrition label. Here are ten sneaky sugars to look for:

  • Agave syrup
  • Barley syrup
  • Beet sugar
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Caramel
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Inverted sugar
  • Malt
  • Refiners syrup

Let’s be clear, sugar is sugar. No matter how you dress it up or down, our bodies still process sugar the same even if it has a fancy name, like agave. Now that you are sugar-savvy, let’s put that knowledge into action.

10 Tricks to Cut Back on Added Sugar

Trimming added sugar doesn’t mean you have to feel deprived. Here are 10 simple ways to get started today:

  1. Make more food at home (from scratch). Restaurants and food manufacturers don’t have your best interests at heart and typically add more sugar than you would if you were cooking at home. After all, if you make the food, you know exactly what goes in it; there’s nowhere for sugar to hide.
  2. Cut back on the sweetness in your recipes. You might be surprised how little you notice a change in overall flavor, especially in foods like quick breads and homemade cookies. Here is a list of ways to cut sugar back in recipes.
  3. Target your greatest offenders. Is it your beloved morning coffee? Consider using whole milk with a touch of cinnamon instead of stirring in sugar. How about your favorite morning yogurt? Opt for a plain Greek yogurt and add in fresh fruit for a quick drop in added sugars. Give yourself a week of trying these and see if you miss the sugar, you might be sweetly surprised.
  4. Portion control. If your drinkings glasses are gigantic and your plates 13 inches in diameter it might be time to swap out your favorite dishes to help you with portion control. Here’s another sneaky thing manufacturers do: They sell snack-size packages of food that appears to be one serving, when in fact it could be two or more servings per container! Don’t be fooled.
  5. Skip over sugary condiments. Try topping your sandwiches with mashed avocado, mustard, hummus, sliced tomato, shredded lettuce, or make your own condiments and ditch the sugar in some of these recipes.
  6. Sweeten foods naturally. Dates, raisins, bananas, grapes, pears, and apples all have natural sugars that can sweeten baked goods, smoothies, and sauces. Like these Banana Blueberry Pancakes that optimize the sweet with mashed bananas.
  7. Ditch sweetened drinks. Liquids go down easily, without even realizing the amount of calories or teaspoons of sugar you may be drinking. Consider fruit-infused waters, herbal teas, or stick with 100% fruit juice diluted with water and served up in a petite 6-ounce glass, just like Grandma would have.
  8. Make your own salad dressings. A simple mix of vinegar and olive oil can transform a salad without any sugar needed. Sometimes, all you need is a squeeze of lemon over a salad to make it pop!
  9. Rethink the snack bars. From granola bars to protein bars, they are often packed with unnecessary added sugars. If you need a quick fix, opt for one only sweetened with fruits, likes dates or raisins.
  10. Spoon up homemade spaghetti sauce. Yes, jarred spaghetti or tomato sauces often have sneaky and unnecessary sugars. Try this roasted red pepper sauce instead or ditch the sugar in this savory spaghetti sauce.

Reducing added sugars is important for long-term health, to include healthier skin, improved cardiovascular health, and mental acuity to name a few. Be mindful of how added sugars can sneak into unexpected foods, but don’t go crazy cutting them all out. Based on current dietary guidelines most Americans can enjoy up to 12 teaspoons a day. Sugar tastes sweet, and we like it, so keep it in your cherished recipes and savor every bite. All foods can fit into a healthy diet, just be mindful of daily habits. After cutting back your sugar intake you may be surprised life can be just as sweet without all the added sugar!

Wendy Jo Peterson, MS, RDN is the co-author of Born To Eat and the Mediterranean Diet Cookbook For Dummies. Catch her chatting about food and nutrition on her website or instagram.

Try these low-sugar treats.
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Wendy Jo Peterson, MS, RDN
As a registered dietitian Wendy Jo touches on the science and facts behind food, but as a gardener and world traveler she savors the classical dishes our great-grandmothers once made. When she’s not in her kitchen, you can find her and her family exploring the US in their campervan, Olaf!