Sugar hiding in food products causes health hazards

Pop open a box of cereal and pour a bowl full of the crunchy goodness. The pieces of breakfast cereal bounce around the bowl like lottery balls awaiting the pick. The sound of milk pouring over the cereal is like the coliseum of your taste buds clapping a round of applause – awaiting the glorious celebration of taking the first bite. It turns out that this experience most Americans think of as a healthy part of a routine breakfast can be a high source of sugar in the diet.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “breakfast cereals are the fifth highest source of added sugars in the diet of children under 8, after sugary drinks, cookies, candy and ice cream.” When the EWG compared some of the most popular breakfast cereals with packaged cookies, they found there is as much sugar in of 1 cup of cereal (such as Honey Nut Cheerios, Cap’n Crunch and Apple Jacks) as there is three Chips Ahoy! Cookies.

Many Americans began the morning ritual of eating cereal as children and then continue the habit as they grow older. According to the EWG, “sugar can be habit-forming and encourage overeating.”

Breakfast cereal is not the only surprise source of added sugar in the diet. Packaged foods and sugar-sweetened beverages are also major sources for sugar. Many packaged breakfast items are marketed as a healthy way to start the day. However, this is one of the many reasons people struggle with health problems in today’s culture.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released the scientific report from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee, stating that “population intake is too high for refined grains and added sugars.” The report encourages consumers to make better decisions by eliminating “sugar-sweetened beverages,” and “place limits on sweets and desserts.” For a guideline of sugar consumption, the report suggests consuming no more the 10% of total daily calories in added sugars.

Cindy DeBlauw, R.D., L.D., and Food Power state coordinator for University of Missouri Extension, said, “There is no specific amount people should could consume. We don’t really need sugar … but people are consuming a lot of extra calories when people are drinking three to four sodas a day or consuming sports drinks they don’t really need.”

The problem of overconsumption of sugar is not new. The question is, why do people continue eating far more than the healthy sugar quota? This might be due to people not paying close attention to ingredients used in the foods they choose to consume. Nutrition labels can only go so far in helping consumers make proper decisions on what to eat. Interpretation and application of the information on a nutrition label is just as much or more important as the information given.

“The important thing is to make the information available for people,” DeBlauw said.

It may soon be easier for consumers to know how much sugar a product contains, according to DeBlauw, as work is underway to redefine the nutrition label.

One issue that causes confusion is the interpretation of serving size on the nutrition label compared to how much a person actually consumes. In December 2014, Consumer Reports performed a study of breakfast cereal portion sizes on 124 participants. The study found 92 percent of participants exceeded the recommended portion size when pouring their own cereal. On average, participants over-poured by 132 percent with Cheerios and 282 percent with granola.

In order to keep things in perspective, some popular food items are listed below with the relationship of mass of sugar to calories from sugar (listed from greatest to least amount of sugar):

Item Serving Size Grams of Sugar Calories from Sugar*
Pepsi 20 fl oz 69g 276
Starbuck’s Caramel Frappacino Grande (16 oz) 64g 256
Starbuck’s Caffé Mocha Grande (16 oz) 35g 140
Gatorade Thirst Quencher 20 fl oz. 34g 136
Peanut M&M’s 1 Pack (1.74 oz) 25g 100
Cap’n Crunch 1.5 Cups 24g 96
Torani Hazelnut Syrup 2 Tbsp 19 g 76
Honey Nut Cheerios 1.5 Cups 18g 72
Honey 1 Tbsp. 17g 68
Frosted Strawberry Poptarts 1 Pastry 16g 64
Agave Nectar 1 Tbsp. 14g 56
Table Sugar (Sucrose) 1 Tbsp. 12g 48
Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie 1 Cookie 10g 40

*According to, there are 4 calories per 1 gram of sugar

Sugar is not hidden in foods, but it can be added to foods in different forms that do not necessarily say “sugar.” The Harvard School for Public Health offers the advice to be careful of the multiple forms of sugar.

“Any Ingredient ending in -ose is sugar,” said Deblauw. “Fructose, glucose, sucrose …. those are all sugar, but sometimes consumers don’t realize they are sugar. It has gotten better. I think consumers have become more aware of the sugar in foods.”

Consumers sometimes think sweeteners such as agave nectar, honey and maple syrup are healthier.

Added sugars and natural sugars are metabolized the same way in your body, so even items like agave nectar and honey can affect your health in a negative way if consumed in high amounts. The American Diabetes Association includes natural sweeteners such as honey, agave nectar, and maple syrup as sugars that should be limited in the diet.

Sugar substitutes may not be the answer, either. The Harvard School of Public Health has performed multiple studies on different types of sweeteners – both artificial and natural. The results are “inconclusive,” because the different studies showed conflicting results between artificial and natural sugars.

DeBlauw does not advise artificial sweeteners as the answer for reducing sugar in the diet.

“There is still some research being done. Some research says it sets an expectation for what that body thinks is sugar.”

Consumers can also be deceived by the idea that “natural” or “organic” labels make an ingredient healthier. The human body will metabolize organic sugar the same as regular sugar, and organic honey the same as regular honey.

“They are all sugar,” said Deblauw. “It’s mostly just marketing.”

Aubrey Jameson

About the Author Aubrey Jameson

The lifestyle of a gypsy has been planted in my blood, and my past experiences of moving have taught me to be flexible with new places. Therefore, the place I call home is a hard subject to explain. Nebraska is where I was born and raised until the age of 12. My family and I lived in multiple locations in Nebraska before moving to Colorado in 2004. Colorado was my home until I graduated high school. My parents are originally from northwest Missouri; so, if I had to pick a place that most feels like home, it would be our family farm just north of Kansas City. My dad is now running his cow-calf operation off of this farm, and our home address is Smithville, Mo. Moving from place-to-place has developed my strongest passions of travel and experiencing new culture. My goal is to work as a social media strategist, using content marketing through social media platforms. I am excited to see what the future holds for the new path I have chosen.