food & drink

Hidden Sugars: How much sugar are we REALLY eating?

Written by Jade Kidd

Sugar is a vital nutrient needed for our bodies to function properly. However, whilst eating a small amount of sugar helps towards a balanced diet as The British Heart Foundation states diets that are higher in sugar tend to be high in energy and calories which can contribute to weight gain.

Ultimately although natural sugars found in some fruits, vegetables and dairy products such as milk can often help towards keeping a healthy diet, added sugars seen in cakes, soft drinks, cookies, and pies can become a hindrance if more than the recommended 5% is consumed daily.

Nevertheless, in recent years hidden sugars found in less obvious foods such as processed pasta sauces, breakfast cereals/bars, salad dressings, soups have been highlighted as a potential area where calories can be gained without the consumers’ knowledge.

What are hidden sugars?

Hidden sugars are often used in foods and drinks to improve their taste and flavour. However, they are not immediately recognised as sugar and can be found in foods consumers would deem to be low-calorie such as salad dressings and drinks.

Foods found to contain hidden sugars

Whilst several foods contain hidden sugar, here are some surprising ones:

Pasta sauce

Shop-bought pasta sauces are often used as a quick, easy option to make a large amount of food on a low budget. However, whilst eating a small amount may seem harmless, certain brands have been labelled a ‘once a week treat due to the large amount of hidden sugar.

Dolmio’s Tomato pasta sauce contains close to seven teaspoons of sugar, whilst their Bolognese sauce contains six cubes of sugar per 500g, the same as a Mars Bar. Equally, Uncle Bens Cantonese Sauce contains as much sugar as two Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.


Yoghurts may seem like a ‘healthy’ alternative snack in the mornings or for kids at lunchtimes, however, consumers may want to watch out for the hidden added sugars in their favourite brands.

According to The Telegraph: “many yoghurt pot servings are 150g. For flavoured yoghurt roughly 5g of the sugar content is healthy lactose, the rest is added sugar”.

The worst culprits for this include Muller Corner Crunch Toffee Hoops Yoghurt which contains 18.4g of sugar per 100g, Muller Corner Crunch Strawberry Shortcakes Yoghurt which contains 17.1g of sugar per 100g and is 57% of the recommended daily intake for adults and 90% for children. Onken Greek style apple and cinnamon contains 16g of sugar per 100g and Yeo Valley 0% Fat Vanilla Yoghurt contains 15.5g of sugar per 100g.

Breakfast bars

Breakfast bars are often seen as a ‘healthier’, low-calorie alternative to the so-called high-calorie, sugar filled cereals many eat in the morning. However, research as suggested that these may not be as ‘healthy’ as they are they are advertised to be, due to the high amount of hidden sugar.

Kellogg’s Coco Pops Snack Bar, aimed at children contain a whopping 42g of sugar per 100g and 8.4g per 20g portion. Equally, Eat Natural fruits and nuts bars contain 40.6g of sugar per 100g and 20.3g of sugar per 50g portion.

Innocent Smoothies

For many years, smoothies have been deemed healthy and a great way to get your five-a-day. However, consumers may want to consider making smoothies from scratch in the future as one of the most popular brands of smoothie have been criticised for containing too much sugar.

Innocent Smoothies mainly aimed towards children contains a massive 34.3g of sugar per 250ml, which as the MailOnline states is equivalent to three-and-a-half Krispy Kreme Original Glazed Doughnuts.

Here are some more BuzzFeed have highlighted:


Technical names for sugar

Often sugar content is overlooked by several consumers as disguises are used on ingredients labels to hide the presence of sugar or alternative sweeteners.

Here are some of the technical names – most sugars end in –ose or –ide.

  • Fructose
  • Lactose
  • Sucrose
  • Glucose
  • Dextrose
  • Maltose
  • High-Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Monosaccharide                                 
  • Disaccharide
  • Polysaccharide
  • Saccharose
  • Galactose
  • Ribose
  • Agave 

Types of sugar to be avoided

According to Body and Soul Australia, the two most commonly known sugars to avoid are Sucrose (table sugar) and High-Fructose corn syrup. These sugars are typically added to commercial foods in order to enhance their flavour and are highly processed.

Sucrose otherwise know as cane sugar is a carbohydrate containing 387 calories per 100g and has equal amounts of fructose and glucose. Conversely, High-fructose corn syrup is a corn-based sweetener containing 281 calories per 100g as well as a blend of glucose and fructose.

In recent years there have been several concerns regarding these two added sugars in particular as the NHS website states regular consumption can result in type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and tooth decay. Therefore, it is paramount consumers watch out for hidden sugars as they may not always know what sugars they are and the exact quantity they are eating.

How to check for sugar on food label

Checking the nutrition label can become very confusing, especially when the amount of sugar is written as a total under ‘carbohydrates (of which sugars)’. Moreover, as manufacturers are not lawfully required to explicitly separate added sugars from natural sugars on the ingredients label it can be even harder to recognise whether foods have more bad sugars or good.

BBC iWonder has provided a solution, allowing consumers to identify when foods have a high sugar content and when not:

  • If there are more than 15g of total sugars per 100g serving, it has a high sugar content.
  • If there are 5g of total sugars or less per 100g serving, it has a low sugar content.

Furthermore, The Independent states that the higher up sugar appears on the list of ingredients, the higher the quantity of sugar in the product – this is definitely something to look out for.

In 2013, the Department of Health introduced a traffic light labelling scheme. It consists of a label at the front of the product coloured in either red, amber or green, depending on whether the product has a low, medium or high amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars, and salt.

Here are what the individual colours mean:

Red – means HIGH.  This indicates that the food is high in fat, sugars or salt and is fine to eat as an occasional treat.

Amber – means MEDIUM, suggesting its an OK choice.

Green – means LOW. When looking at labels, foods where the all or the majority of the label is green are the best option as they are healthier and help you keep a balanced diet.

The Future

Technically nobody likes to hear about hidden sugars in foods, but unfortunately, they do exist. However, moving forward in order to combat this, manufacturers could display sugar more explicitly on nutrition labels, including by law having to differentiate between added sugars and natural sugars on all food labels, not just some. This would be beneficial as consumers are not misled and can identify sugar easily as well as control how much sugar they eat more effectively, especially if they are following a particular diet. This can also help towards weight loss and combating the current obesity problem in the UK. Equally, sometimes it can be a healthier alternative to re-create your favourite foods at home, instead of buying ready-made items.