‘Healthy’ Foods That Secretly Have a Bunch of Added Sugar

Stacey Greenberg/Thrillist
Stacey Greenberg/Thrillist

Trying to eat healthier in a world filled with so many superb burgers is tough enough as it is. As though the world is really trying to derail your health, there are foods out there -- by “out there,” we mean “in the grocery store” -- that masquerade as healthy, but are actually full of added sugar. While that may sound delicious, sugar is pretty bad for you.

Want to avoid that all-too-familiar high, subsequent crash, and all the long-term problems associated with excess sugar intake? Be wary of these foods:



Cereal may seem like an easy go-to breakfast choice, but before pouring your next bowl, Brianna Diorio, a nutritionist for the Vitamin Shoppe, encourages you to ask yourself: Would you start your morning with a can of root beer? If you find yourself grimacing at the idea (and if not, weird), then you might want to switch up your morning routine.

“Many store-bought boxed cereals contain a laundry list of ingredients, including preservatives, salt, artificial coloring and, of course, lots of added sugar -- which makes you crave more sugar,” Diorio says. She suggests taking a quick scan of your cereal label before purchasing. If you find several kinds of sugar listed within the first five ingredients (sugar, brown rice sugar, corn syrup, modified corn molasses, etc.), choose another option.

Healthy swap: “Replace your cereal with overnight oats,” Diorio says. Not instant oatmeal, in case you don’t know what “overnight” means.

Overnight oats are simply oats soaked overnight that absorb the liquid they’re marinated in. This liquid can be milk, yogurt, or really whatever you want (just not root beer). What makes them the better choice? Oats are a powerful source of protein and fiber, as well as potassium, magnesium, and vital B vitamins.

Mix in nut butters, protein powder, flax seeds, or dried fruit for a tasty -- yet still healthy -- finish.


Fruit cups

If you’re wondering how a snack with fruit as the star could be unhealthy, check out the ingredient label. “Your first clue should be that you’re reading an ingredient label on something intended to be fruit,” Diorio says. D’oh.

Added sugars, syrups, artificial coloring and preservatives turn what looks like a convenient and healthy snack into a not-so-nutritious trap.

Healthy swap: Just eat fresh fruit! It can satisfy sweet cravings while avoiding added sugars, acids, and even high fructose corn syrup that can be found in packaged fruit cups. “Plus, you’ll add fiber, vitamins and antioxidants to your diet without having to waste extra time reading labels in the snack aisle,” Diorio says.

Flickr/tracy benjamin

Salad dressing

If you’re skipping pizza in favor of salads but still loading up on dressing, you might not be doing yourself any favors. OK, it’s probably slightly better than pizza, but still, that dressing is usually packed with junk.

Oh, you’ve been choosing “light” and “low-fat” versions? Not any healthier.
“We’re often duped with clever nutritional claims and health buzzwords, leaving us with a laundry list of ingredients,” Diorio says. “Many times when they are removing the fat, they are also removing the flavor.”

In order to make the dressing more palatable, salad dressing producers have to add back in something, which is usually -- you guessed it! -- sugar.

Healthy swap: Before you set fire to every bag of kale in your fridge, try a classic oil-and-balsamic-vinegar combo combines flavor and antioxidants to make a low-calorie, yet delicious, faux dressing. Diorio particularly sings the praises of olive oil: “Olive oil is a great source of vitamins K and E, as well as healthy unsaturated fat.”


Nonfat yogurt

Did you know that “nonfat” is actually code for tasteless and bland? Well, it is. Like with salad dressing, yogurt without any fat in it is really just a slimy, formless, tasteless blob… unless manufacturers add sugar to make it tastier.

The healthy swap: Full-fat Greek yogurt. Yes, really! Fat isn’t the enemy; just choose unflavored yogurts to avoid added sugars. Diorio recommends mixing in your own fresh fruit, or drizzling raw honey into your yogurt for additional sweetness.

Flickr/tracy benjamin


Caloric sweeteners are in more than 95% of store-bought granola products -- yes, even the ones that loudly display labels like, “organic” and, “all-natural” (In fact, probably especially those.) Even if you don’t see sugar on the nutrition facts, look for these buzzwords: evaporated cane juice, molasses, brown rice syrup, and oat syrup solids. They’re all sugar sources in disguise.

The healthy swap: Opt for homemade muesli instead, Diorio suggests. Muesli. It’s like, totally popular in Switzerland.

Muesli is a granola-like breakfast based on raw, rolled oats and other ingredients, including various grains, fresh or dried fruits, seeds and nuts, and can be mixed with milk, yogurt or fruit juice.

Choosing muesli also gives you the power to add sweetness according to your personal taste. “You can control how much sugar is in your muesli by using natural sweeteners such as stevia, a dash of cinnamon, or raisins and dried cranberries,” Diorio says

Flickr/Mike Mozart

Coconut water

It might surprise you that some types of coconut water has lots of added sugar, because it still tastes terrible. With plenty of coconut waters trying to jump on the “coconut water as health drink” trend, many take some liberties with a pretty straightforward concept -- just take the water out of the coconut! -- and beef it up with sugars.

The healthy swap: Diorio recommends trying aloe vera juice. Aloe vera juice is naturally sugar free and may help support digestive and immune health. Plus, when you drink it, you’ll be sipping important vitamins and over twenty different minerals including chromium, magnesium, potassium and iron.

Just make sure you’re not falling into the same trap here by buying versions with sugars and syrups added. “If the taste isn’t your favorite, mix [aloe vera juice] with a splash of 100% pineapple or cranberry juice for a touch of sweetness,” Diorio says.

So WTF is safe to eat?
If you’re suspicious of everything, you have a pretty good reason to be. To avoid foods with sneaky amounts of hidden sugar, it’s best to minimize the amount of processed foods you consume. Or you could subsist entirely on overnight oats, fruit, and olive oil dressing over kale salads. Whatever you do, try to avoid drinking soda for breakfast.

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Erin Kelly is a writer, runner, and triathlete living in NYC. She doesn’t like fruit snacks, anyway. You can follow her on Twitter at @erinkellysays.