But lunch? Lunch is a meal you can depend on—like that friend who’s always down to drive you to the airport or help you move across the country. Right? Maybe not. Those quick meals you’ve been scarfing at your desk could be can aiding and abetting (gasp!) hidden sugar.
How Much Is Too Much?
"A little sugar is OK, but we’re not eating a little bit of sugar," says Leslie Lee, R.D. "We're just getting it from every direction."
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugar to less than 10 percent of calorie intake (that's about 50 grams if you eat 2,000 calories per day), whereas the American Heart Association advises a max of 37.5 grams for the average man and 25 grams for women. It's important to note that this is added sugar, not the kind that naturally occurs in foods like plain yogurt, fruit, and milk.
“The current version of the Nutrition Facts label lumps added sugars and naturally occurring sugars together under total sugars, so consumers don’t easily know how much added sugar they’re eating," says Amanda Bontempo, R.D. "The FDA has proposed that added sugars have their own line on food labels similar to the way total fat and saturated fat are listed separately.”
Until that goes into effect, the ingredient list is your best bet. But keep in mind it might not actually say "sugar." Watch out for high fructose corn syrup; anything ending in “ose” (like glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and maltose); and even natural sweeteners such as agave nectar, maple syrup, and coconut sugar.
Is Sugar Lurking in Your Lunch?
If you're anything like us, you probably grab a salad or sandwich for your midday meal. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but your lunch could be hiding more sugar than you think.
"Whole-wheat bread can have almost a teaspoon of sugar per slice," says Bontempo.
That's equal to 4 grams of sugar. While not a huge amount, it can quickly double if you make a sandwich with two slices—and that's before you even get to what's between the bread.
Try this: Check the label. "A bread without added sugar should have 0 grams," says Bontempo. But watch out for fake sugars. "Many brands will also use alternative artificial sweeteners like sucralose to keep sugar grams low while still offering a sweet product," says Bontempo.
As a rule, the shorter the ingredient list (think flour, water, yeast, and salt), the better. Or go all out and bake your own—it's easier than you might think.
2. Deli Meats
Lean, unprocessed meats don't contain any sugar—natural or added. Not so with cold cuts. Many manufacturers add corn syrup and other sweeteners.
While the amount of sugar per serving is small (usually between 0 to 3 grams), we've all been guilty of piling on more than a few thin slices, and many delis and restaurants do the same. In general, it's best to limit processed meats to a few times a week since they've also been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers and heart disease. Salt, processed meat and the risk of cancer. Hu J, La Vecchia C, Morrison H. European journal of cancer prevention : the official journal of the European Cancer Prevention Organisation (ECP), 2011, May.;20(2):1473-5709. Long-term processed and unprocessed red meat consumption and risk of heart failure: A prospective cohort study of women. Kaluza J, Åkesson A, Wolk A. International journal of cardiology, 2015, May.;193():1874-1754.
Try this: As with bread, any sugar grams listed will be added sugar.
"I stick with Boar's Head luncheon meats, which contain 0 grams of sugar," says Gina Hassick, R.D. "Instead of using lunch meats, it is better make extra chicken or turkey and repurpose for different meals to help cut down on meal prep and provide a healthier, homemade option."
Here's where the sugar starts to really pile up.
"Even a tablespoon of barbecue sauce can have 9 grams of sugar," Hassick says. "If you're dunking your chicken in it or pouring some over a salad, it can add up very quickly."
Other major offenders are ketchup, honey mustard, and teriyaki sauce.
Try this: "When buying your own, check the labels for the lowest sugar versions," Lee says. "When eating out, simply acknowledge that condiments contribute to your added sugar intake. Moderate how much you eat, just like you would for dessert."
You can also make healthier swaps, such as substituting a tahini sauce for ranch, Sriracha for ketchup, or Dijon mustard for honey mustard. Here's a list of better-for-you condiments and sauces to add to your pantry.
4. Salad Dressings
We all know how quickly a salad can get of hand. Add bacon, a handful of cheese, maybe some tortilla strips—next thing you know you might as well be eating nachos.
And the dressing doesn't help. A standard serving (2 tablespoons) of honey mustard contains more than 5 grams of sugar, and a generic Italian dressing has around 3 grams per serving. Not the worst, but very few people actually measure how much they pour over their lettuce.
Try this: Oil and vinegar. Every expert we talked to suggested this simple combination. You'll be surprised how much flavor it adds—without any sugar!
If that doesn't do it for you, ask for dressing on the side; you'll be more aware of how much you're eating. We also have some great salad dressing recipes that don't use sugar and taste way better than the bottled stuff.
The fact that regular soda contains sugar probably doesn't come as a surprise, but we tend to overlook just how much. A 12-ounce can has around 37 grams—almost a day's worth!
You'll also want to check the ingredient list on pretty much any drink you buy at the store. Many seemingly healthy fruit juices, energy drinks, and pre-made smoothies contain added sugar.
Try this: If plain old water bores you, jazz it up with fruit. Sparkling water, black coffee, and unsweetened tea are other good options.
6. Fast Food
“People have become increasingly sensitive to the added sugars that we can see on ingredient lists," Bontempo says. "It gets harder when we don’t see the label or if there isn’t one."
In other words, it’s hard to know how much sugar is in that sub, burrito bowl, or even salad—and some contain as much as 40 grams!
Try this: If the restaurant does post nutrition information, look at total grams of sugar. While that number doesn't tell the whole story, it can be a good indicator of what to skip.
Or: “Take your lunch with you,” says Lee. “Cooking is the easiest way to control the quality of the ingredients in your food.” We suggest starting with these healthy meals you can make in 10 minutes or less.
7. Frozen Meals
The good thing about frozen meals is that you have access to a nutrition label. The bad thing is that even the healthiest-looking meals can hide some pretty sketchy ingredients.
"Any frozen meal (pizza, frozen dinner, etc.) likely has a plethora of nasty ingredients in it, including multiple sources of added sugar," says Lee.
Try this instead: Set aside an hour or two on Sunday to prepare one of these easy make-ahead dishes and simply reheat them throughout the week.
We're all eating a lot more sugar than we think. But the more you're aware of how it easily it can sneak into everyday foods, the easier it is to make better choices.
"Keeping your [added] sugar intake as close to zero as possible is even better for your health," says Lee, "and it helps to eliminate cravings for sugar, which means you’ll have more control over what you choose to eat."
We’ve partnered with Target to cut through information overload and break down exactly what you need to know on complex topics like the one above. Check out the entire Things You Kinda Know series here.