I stick to a mostly whole foods diet, but when I’m buying something packaged, I have a few very easy rules for reading food labels. These are so simple that you can even teach them to kids:
First, I look at the list of ingredients, and if it’s very long and includes things I can’t pronounce, then I do not want to eat that food.
Second, I check the grams of sugar. Always remember when you’re looking at the grams of sugar contained in a food or drink that 4 grams of sugar is the equivalent of a teaspoon. That means that if something, a protein bar for example, contains 16 grams of sugar, that is the equivalent of 4 teaspoons!
We all know that soda and candy bars contain lots of sugar. But here are some healthy-sounding foods that contain far more sugar than you probably realize:
1. Fruit Juice
Many people think of fruit juice as healthy, but it’s important to be aware of the sugar content. One cup of orange juice can pack 21 grams of sugar. Even green juice can have a ton of sugar if it’s sweetened with apple, pear, or pineapple. Another common mixup is that when you look at the nutrition label on a small bottle of juice, it’s often more than 1 serving, so that’s double the sugar.
If you drink fruit juice, have it in small doses, or just have a splash in a glass of plain or sparkling water. If you drink green juices, go for one that’s full of green veggies like kale, cucumber and celery, with lemon, ginger and just a small amount of apple to sweeten.
Yogurt can be another surprising source of sugar, a dessert in a cup. A Dannon “Fruit on the Bottom” with blueberry has a whopping 24 grams of sugar in a 6 ounce container. This particular yogurt is advertised as 99 percent fat free—but you can see it’s loaded with sugar.
Instead, check out the Siggi’s plain yogurt, which only has 4 grams of sugar. Note that Siggi’s blueberry yogurt has 11 grams of sugar, which is far less than Dannon Fruit on the Bottom. Another interesting choice is Anita’s coconut yogurt, available in NYC, which only has 1 gram of sugar per serving.
3. Protein Bars
A great many protein bars on the market are junk food for adults. Right off the bat, many have a long list of ingredients that you can’t pronounce. Then there’s the sugar issue. A Clif Chocolate Chip Peanut Bar has 21 grams of sugar. That may be appropriate if you’re doing endurance sports, but it’s another if you’re sitting at a desk.
A better option might be a Kind bar, they have a few varieties such as Madagascar Vanilla Almond which only have 4 or 5 grams of sugar. Another great bar is this Power Bar from Elana’s Pantry—only 1 tablespoon of honey in the whole batch (the chocolate on top is optional!).
4. Gluten-Free Baked Goods
Sometimes people see a “gluten-free” label and take that as a license to indulge. However, this is another case of junk food for adults. A gluten-free muffin will have just as much sugar as a muffin that’s made with wheat.
While fruit is my sweet treat of choice and the only “dessert” that we keep in the house on a regular basis, I reach for the low-glycemic fruits like berries or apples. In smoothies, I often use avocado instead of a banana, opting for the healthy fats in avocado rather than the sweeter banana. I love the sweet fruits like pineapple, mango and grapes, but eat those less often and in much smaller quantities.
And be aware that dried fruit is a sugar bomb—a little sprinkle of dried cranberries over a salad might be ok, but eating any large quantity of dried fruit is going to be tons of sugar.