Trying to Avoid Sugar? You’re Probably Eating it Anyway

by Elle Penner, MPH, RD
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Trying to Avoid Sugar? You’re Probably Eating it Anyway

A survey of more than 11,000 U.S. consumers last year shows we’re paying more attention to how much sugar is in foods than they type of sugar—whether it comes from sucrose or high fructose corn syrup.

The Sweetener360 study, commissioned by the Corn Refiners Association to discover out how consumers approach sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, found that 75 percent of consumers say they regularly or occasionally read the nutritional information or list of ingredients on food and beverage labels.

Not surprisingly, 50 percent of consumers are actively pursuing a healthy lifestyle and avoiding sugars—but the Corn Refiners Association wanted to know: do we discriminate? Yes, high fructose corn syrup has been demonized, but it turns out we’re more interested in avoiding added sugars as a whole rather than a specific type of sweetener. Only 4.6 percent of those polled read labels with the specific intent to avoid high fructose corn syrup.

While there are biochemical differences in how sugars, like fructose and glucose, are metabolized, consumers seem to be aware of the three key facts: sugar is sugar, less is better, and moderation is important. According to the study, “Sixty-seven percent of consumers agree that to be healthy, moderation is more important than sweetening ingredients.”

Whether it’s corn syrup, cane juice or raw, organic sugar in your morning bowl of cereal, we know that refined sweeteners are little more than empty calories—void of the healthy fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients found in foods with naturally occurring sugars like fruit. The truth is, all added sugars, including natural sugars like honey and agave nectar, can have a negative impact on your triglycerides and blood sugar, and can increase your risk of weight gain and metabolic syndrome when consumed in excess over time.

But just because we claim to avoid added sugars doesn’t mean we actually are. In addition to showing we don’t discriminate between added sugars, purchase data shows sugar-conscious shoppers, “still buy sweetened products at the same rate,” as those who don’t actively try to avoid them.

Not surprisingly, the study also reveals taste and price largely drive our purchasing decisions. This makes sense. Sugar is cheap, it tastes good and it’s added to nearly every food on supermarket shelves.

It seems to me sweetener manufacturers have us just where they want us—convinced we’re making healthier choices and cutting back on sugar without actually doing so.

Are you just pretending to try to eat less sugar, or is the food supply so saturated that avoiding it is nearly impossible? Share your thoughts in the comments!


  • usmcmp

    “can increase your risk of weight gain when consumed in excess over time.” Just like fat or protein. Great job at making it seem like it’s sugar’s fault, not eating extra calories.

  • Tina Toburen

    I rarely eat anything I don’t make from fresh whole foods myself… and even when sugar is in a recipe, I normally leave it out.
    I feed my sweet-cravings (and get my sugar) from whole fruit these days.
    On the rare occasions I eat out or pick up a candy bar, I don’t feel guilty about it… I just enjoy it!

  • dsquare86

    In my experience added sugar is in everything at the market these days…

  • Michael Gagliano

    I will make a conscious effort to only buy products at the store with 5> grams of sugar

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  • Mel

    I have been paleo for over a month now and although I occasionally slip up and munch on something I probably shouldn’t, I have managed to stay away from white sugars and bleached wheat. It’s made a difference in my health and weight loss. If I’m craving sweets it usually comes from fruit or tea with a teaspoon of local honey

  • Jacke rose

    I buy very little prepared foods . What i do buy does not have sugar unless it is actually candy or pie. Even if I do get a sugar treat I now avoid any kind of corn syrup totally and prefer honey or maple syrup or stevia to raw sugar.

  • alien

    Just. eat. real. food. Paleo/Primal with no Paleo treats easy to go sugar free. Dont buy processed food

  • Dom Wint

    I recently started out on the I Quit Sugar programme – where I’m attempting to eat less than 25g of sugar per day. That’s meant cutting out most fruits and of course anything out of a packet. It’s been a lot easier than I expected; planning is the key.

    What’s startled me, reading the list of ingredients on a lot of store-bought foods, is that there is sugar in EVERYTHING! Why is there sugar in mayonnaise? I guess the only way forward would be to prepare everything from scratch, but I have two kids and my own business so I don’t have the time for that. Just have to be really diligent with the labels.

    It’s certainly made me a lot clearer in my head.

  • MEW

    I look for the total sugar grams or milligrams per serving (that is the serving I am actually going to eat, not the serving size on the package. Of more importance
    to me is sodium content, and this is really most difficult to control.l I’d really prefer to add whatever sweeteners and sodium I care to use rather than having the packagers adding whatever they think is appropriate.

  • Emm

    I was surprised to find that manufacturers add several different kinds of sugars to avoid the sugar additive to show up in the 1st five ingredients. I regularly check for this as well as check the sugar grams per serving & also make sure the serving size is appropriate, ie 10 grams of sugar per tablespoon is NOT okay!

  • Judy

    I am so addicted to sugar and I dont want to be, it makes me feel rotten, slow, heavy, cotton wool head, painful, bad memory, but i cant quit, Ive heard its worse than a heroin addiction to get off

    • Vanessa Hutcheson

      I had a surprisingly good experience quitting sugar, even though I had a really tough sweet tooth. I had really brutal cravings for sweets for one day, but after that I felt fine. The cravings were intense, but they were over mercifully fast.

      Increasing fat consumption a bit helps make it easier. I had walnuts, hard-boiled eggs, and cheese cubes as snacks. Lots of fiber helps keep digestion steady and manage hunger–oats and tubers were my main sources of fiber. Drinking lots of water also helped.

      I cut out alcohol because it can cause wild fluctuations in blood sugar, caffeine because it messes with metabolism, and artificial sweeteners because they exacerbated my sugar cravings. I didn’t realize how bad artificial sweeteners were for my sweet tooth until I quit them.

      Now, I think of a mildly, naturally sweet food like grapes, apples, or sweet potatoes as a special treat.

  • dalovelee

    I have significantly reduced consuming sugar by changing my diet…compared to my diet a year ago, ranging from cookies, offices sweets, donuts ..certain cereals…I realized just how addictive that craving for sugar is. Now when I look at all the sugary drinks and snacks that is in the supermarket it’s no wonder society is hooked on this sneaky additive is. I can’t imagine the battle parents must go through to get their kids off sugary foods.

  • haha

    It’s hillarious that this ignoramous includes honey and equates it with high fructose corn poison. LAUGHABLE!!! yeah cuz this epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cancer was around back before the industrial/agricultural revolution when people were just eating honey. ummmm yeah. well who can blame her, that was waaaaaaaayyy before she was born so she’s clueless about the past and the difference in our society now which is 100% attributable to high fructose corn syrup and other fake sugar poisons they’ve dumped on our society. Look at societies without that junk and ummmm guess what? duh.

    • haha

      don’t believe me? look up where she went to college and look up who FUNDED THAT COLLEGE!!! (ahem corn refiners association of america maybe???)

      • 1000jewels

        Sweetheart, any intelligent argument that you might have with the author is superseded by your vitriol. Save that for your own life, there really is no reason to spread ugliness on these public forums.

  • crazygemini12

    Sugar is my vice. I’m not even pretending to pretend I’m trying to cut back. It feels impossible 🙁

  • kaela

    The best and most simple rule to live by is – If it is in a box don’t buy it. There are few products you can trust. If you want to shop for great marketing ideas, go to the supermarket. If you are trying eat clean but just can’t get out of the aisles, shop for brands and companies. Find the ones that align with your health and environment goals. This way you can still buy products you want at the supermarket and feel guilt free, financially and physically.