5 Sugar-Loaded Health Food Imposters
Australian actor Damon Gameau decided to conduct a crazy health experiment — for 60 days he ate a sugar-loaded diet to see how it would affect his health. He aimed for 40 grams per day.
Here's the twist... he didn't start gobbling junk food or chugging soda. In fact, he avoided these common culprits completely. “I had no soft drink, chocolate, ice cream or confectionery,” he says.
“All the sugars that I was eating were found in perceived healthy foods, so low-fat yogurts, and muesli bars, and cereals, and fruit juices, sports drinks… these kind of things that often parents would give their kids thinking they’re doing the right thing.”1
Not surprisingly, two full months of this sugar-dense diet took a serious toll on his health.
He was in the early stages of fatty liver disease, which the Mayo Clinic says can lead to liver failure.
He suffered mood swings. He passed out once in a shopping center because his blood sugar was out of whack. He gained nearly 20 pounds — and about four inches of visceral fat around his waistline...
And all by eating so-called health foods.
Here are five common health food imposters that Damon consumed during his high-sugar diet:
1. Low-fat yogurt
Nutritionist Monica Reinagel says low-fat yogurt is notorious for being high in sugar.2 Top-selling brand Yoplait's original strawberry squeezes 26 grams of sugar into one 6 ounce container. Dannon's Activia packs 19 grams of sugar — the same amount as a Twinkie — into a sub-standard 4.4 ounce serving.
The good news is, not all yogurt's the equivalent of a sugar-bomb. If you choose wisely, yogurt can be a nutritional powerhouse packed with good digestive bacteria, calcium, and protein.
One nutritionally savvy option is to go Greek and opt for a full-fat, unflavored variety. If the sour nature of plain Greek yogurt turns you off, you can compromise and gain a little sweetness by adding fresh fruit or just a touch of raw honey or pure maple syrup. Don't overdo it here — honey and maple syrup are still sugar, but both contain important antioxidants, minerals, amino acids, and a wide range of B vitamins you won't find in standard table sugar.
2. Low-fat Salad Dressing
Many low-fat and fat-free salad dressings are laden with sugar (and salt) in order to amp up the flavor. Your best bet is a zero-sugar, high-fat option like olive oil and vinegar. Not only are healthy fats like olive oil full of flavor, but they allow your body to absorb key nutrients from the salad vegetables.
In fact, scientists at Purdue University found that salad dressings with the highest fat content yielded the best absorption of nutrients like lycopene and beta-carotene, proven antioxidants and cancer-fighting compounds.3
On the flip-side, researchers found that absorption of these crucial nutrients “was negligible” when salad was paired with fat-free dressing.4 So if you douse your salad with low or non-fat dressing, you're sabotaging the nutritional value. Do your body and your taste buds a favor by skipping the sugar and stocking up on a fat-filled dressing.
3. Cereal Bars and Granola Bars
Cereal and granola bars are a grab-and-go option that can be deceiving. Many brands boast of containing fiber or whole grains, but all too many varieties are chock-full of sugar. Nature Valley's popular crunchy granola bars contain 12 grams of sugar. Eat a Kellogg's apple cinnamon-flavored bar and you're looking at 16 grams of sugar. A recent consumer report even called Kellogg's out for its Frosties Cereal and Milk bars — made with seven different types of sugar, the small snack bar is nearly one third sugar.5
4. Canned Tomato Soup
Campbell's soup's a household name, and for many Americans it's a cabinet staple. One of its most popular varieties, condensed tomato soup, contains 12 grams of sugar in each half cup serving. The whole can will set you back 30 grams... or the equivalent of three Krispy Kreme glazed donuts.
Not only is it a sugar-bomb in a bowl, but the second ingredient is high fructose corn syrup — which Princeton University researchers found to be even worse for you than regular table sugar.6 Researchers spiked lab rats' water with either high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or table sugar, and were stunned when the HFCS group gained significantly more weight than the table sugar group. In fact, every single rat in the HFCS group became obese.
“These rats aren't just getting fat,” said one researcher, “they're demonstrating characteristics of obesity, including substantial increases in abdominal fat and circulating triglycerides...in humans, these same characteristics are known risk factors for high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cancer and diabetes.”7
5. Condiments and Sauces
Part of what prompted Damon Gameau's high-sugar experiment was an epiphany moment in the grocery store: “I decided to properly read some labels,” he says, “and discovered that BBQ sauce, hoisin sauce and sweet chilli sauce all had more sugar in them per serving than chocolate sauce.”8
Just like supposedly savory canned soups, common condiments are loaded with added sugars. One tablespoon of ketchup has nearly four grams of sugar. In barbecue sauce you'll find six grams. New York Times bestselling nutrition author J.J. Virgin says you have to be especially on guard while dining out, since “restaurants love to drown perfectly healthy fish, chicken, and beef in syrupy sauces.”9
How much is too much?
The American Heart Association has made the following recommendations about limiting sugar intake:
Men should have no more than 9 teaspoons (roughly 36 grams) per day
Women should have no more than 6 teaspoons (about 24 grams) per day
Children should have no more than 3 teaspoons (or 12 grams) per day
Bear in mind that these guidelines reflect the upper threshold, and the less sugar you eat, the better.
Fact is, the body doesn't need added sugars to function properly, and they contribute zero nutritional value to the diet.
Long story short, avoiding sugar can do wonders for your health (and your waistline). Remember to read labels to scout out hidden sugars, and as with alcohol, know your limits... and please snack responsibly.
Dr. Jack Wolfson
Senior Editor, Clear Health Now
Dr. Jack Wolfson DO, FACC is a board-certified cardiologist who believes bad nutrition and toxins create heart health problems. He prevents and treats cardiovascular disease with good nutrition, not medicines and treats the whole person, not just the symptoms.