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Sugar is notoriously sneaky—without even realizing it, you might be eating more than you think. Consider this: A bowl of cereal for breakfast, a deli sandwich for lunch, and a salad with store-bought dressing for dinner are all surprisingly high sources of sugar. Even though all three meals seem like healthy choices, you could be racking up a whopping 42 grams of sugar. (That’s over one and a half times the recommended daily amount.)

For the most part, sugar in your diet isn’t great—it’s been linked to heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and weight gain (not to mention tooth decay).

But not all sugar is created equal.

“You don’t want to overload your body with sugar,” says Lisa Moskovitz, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in New York. “But you still need sugar to survive.”

When you think of sugar, you probably picture the snow-white stuff added to baked goods and dumped by the tablespoon into soda. This is called added sugars. “Added sugars should be limited because they’re often found in foods that have little to no nutritive value,” Moskovitz says. “This can contribute to weight gain, obesity, health issues, and inflammation.”

But that doesn’t mean your sweet tooth is doomed. Natural sugars—those found in nutritious foods like fruits and veggies—can actually provide nutritional value, says Moskovitz. They help power your day, giving your brain and body the energy they need to get from early a.m. classes to intramural sports practices.

The one thing that’s clear about sugar is that too much of it is bad for your health. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends reducing your daily intake of added sugars to less than 5 percent of your total energy intake (calories consumed). For example, if you consume 2,000 calories a day, aim not to exceed 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugars. “Always check food labels for grams of sugar, which is found under carbohydrates,” Moskovitz says.

Natural sugars are less concerning. “Natural sugars are superior because they’re typically found in foods that also contain a variety of extremely beneficial nutrients,” Moskovitz explains. Take apples, for example. A medium-sized apple contains 19 grams of sugar, but it’s also rich in good-for-you flavonoids and antioxidants. The fiber in the apple also helps slow down the body’s absorption of the sugar.

It’s the added sugars you should worry about. Of the 27 grams of sugar in a single bowl of Smart Start® cereal, for example, 18 grams are added sugars. (American food labels are now required to list added sugars—you’ll see them on a separate line beneath the total sugar count on a nutrition label—so pay attention to that number.)

Limiting your sugar intake isn’t always as simple as cutting back on dessert and switching to diet soda. Sugar is hiding everywhere—even in foods that don’t taste sweet, including bread, tomato sauce, and almond butter (yes, really). Told you it was sneaky.

On top of that, sugar can hide behind dozens of different names. There are more than 60 different names for sugar listed on food labels. Cane juice crystals, sorghum syrup, barley malt, corn syrup, dextran, dextrose, and fructose are just a few of sugar’s aliases that might show up on an ingredient label.

“If it’s not a fruit, vegetable, or dairy food and it has sugar, then it’s most likely added sugar, not natural,” Moskovitz says.

green apple and pink donut

Think you can outsmart sugar? Test your knowledge with this quiz to find out some of the most surprising places sugar is hiding.

How students are reducing their sugar intake

“I switch out processed sugary snacks for fruit and unsalted nuts. I also cut down on sugared beverages by drinking water, milk, or herbal tea instead.”
—Amber L., third-year undergraduate, Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina

“One of the best ways to keep your sugar intake down is to avoid sugary drinks like pop or Gatorade.”
—Shelby O., first-year undergraduate, St. Clair College, Ontario, Canada

“I keep track of my sugar intake using an app I learned about from Student Health 101. The app is called Fooducate.”
—Jessica F., fourth-year graduate student, The Ohio State University

“[I] usually have something that’s more natural and sweet, like fruit.”
—Joseph A., fourth-year undergraduate, University of North Dakota

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Article sources

Photography credit: Erica Hudson

Lisa Moskovitz, RD, nutritionist, New York, New York.

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Joanna Carmona is communications coordinator at the National Patient Safety Foundation. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Student Health 101. She has also edited collegiate textbooks for Cengage Learning and creating language learning materials for the US Department of Defense, libraries, and other educational institutions. Her BA in Spanish is from the University of New Hampshire.

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Macaela Mackenzie is a graduate of Northwestern University and a freelance journalist for Self, Shape, Women's Health, and Allure, among others.