If you’re aiming to improve your health, you probably want to keep an eye on the amount of processed sugar you’re eating. Processed sugar, which is also called refined sugar, is sugar that’s extracted from foods like sugar cane or sugar beets, chemically produced and added to other foods. You’ll find it in packages of heavily processed foods that taste sweet, like candy, cookies, ice cream, and soda, as well as in foods like certain types of crackers, sauces and soup.
Processed sugar contains a lot of calories and doesn’t provide much in the way of nutrition. Consuming too much processed sugar may increase your risk for vascular and heart disease, diabetes, weight gain (and obesity), liver disease, dementia, depression and some types of cancer.
With all those potential negative effects on your health, why are we eating so much added sugar? Well, for most of us, it’s appealing because it makes food taste good. You don’t have to eliminate all processed sugar from your diet, though.
“It’s OK at times to eat foods with processed sugars guilt-free. Overall, you want to try to limit processed sugars, but they can still be incorporated into a healthy diet,” said Julie Lammers, a dietitian with Banner Children’s.
According to the 2020 to 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, processed sugar should make up less than 10% of calories for those who are 2 years and older. Babies younger than 2 years of age shouldn’t have added sugars.
Keep in mind that there are different types of sugar; processed is different from natural sugar. Foods like fruit that contain natural sugars provide essential nutrients that can help you stay healthy.
Below are six swaps for reducing processed sugar in your diet.
1. Add in flavor, so you drink more water
Beverages like soda, sports or energy drinks, and juice can contain a lot of processed sugar. Whether you’re slurping down a slushy or sipping on an iced coffee, if it’s not water, there’s a large possibility you’re taking in a whole lot of added sugar. Reaching for water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages is one of the most effective ways to reduce your added sugar consumption.
Of course, a lot of people prefer the taste of flavored beverages and find water to be boring. To make it more interesting, try adding lemon, lime, cucumber, strawberries or mint for flavor. Unsweetened tea and black coffee are also good sugar-free options.
2. Prepare your own meals
When you don’t have time to prepare a meal, it’s easy to reach for a frozen option. But some frozen meals are better choices than others. Many are packed full of salt, preservatives and—you guessed it—processed sugars. If you’re a fan of the convenience of frozen meals, read the nutrition facts label to find one with less added sugar.
And when you have the time, making a homemade meal allows you to decide which ingredients are added in. You can easily replace a frozen pasta meal with boiled pasta and a sauce made from fresh tomatoes and spices. Adding a few minutes to your dinner routine can cut out a lot of added sugar.
3. Watch for “added sugar” on food labels
Since sugar is added to so many different types of foods, look at the labels when you’re shopping. Keep in mind that a lot of foods that contain processed sugar don’t necessarily taste sweet.
Many processed food labels break down sugar into two categories: “total sugars,” which include both naturally occurring sugars and processed sugars, and “added sugars,” which are the sugars added to the food during processing. It’s best to find products containing little or no added sugars.
4. Add fruit instead of sugar to sweeten what you eat
Think about times when you like to add something sweet to your food. Breakfast is a meal where a lot of us reach for something sweet. Maybe you drizzle maple syrup over your pancakes, sprinkle brown sugar on your oatmeal or spread jam on your toast.
Try switching to fruits like strawberries, blueberries or bananas to sweeten your breakfast cereal or morning meal without adding processed sugar. And keep in mind that you can make the switch gradually—maybe start by adding a handful of blueberries to your oatmeal and scaling back on the brown sugar. You can change the ratio over time, as you get accustomed to the different flavors.
5. Cut back on sugar when you’re baking
For a lot of people, nothing beats the taste of freshly baked cookies, brownies or cakes. You don’t have to give up these treats when you’re cutting back on processed sugar. Decrease the amount of added sugars the recipe calls for by one-third to one-half—often, you won’t notice a difference. You can also search for lower-sugar versions of the recipes you use to make your favorite treats.
And full-sugar versions of these foods can still be enjoyed. If you’re craving that slice of birthday cake or warm-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookie, go for it. You can still enjoy your favorite baked goods as part of a balanced diet.
6. Substitute spices for sugar
If cutting back on the sugar in your recipes makes you feel like something is missing, try adding spices. They can amp up the flavor without adding a lot of calories. Good choices are ginger, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg. Extracts like vanilla and almond can also give you the flavor you crave.
The bottom line
If you’re consuming more processed sugar than you should, these six steps can help you make great strides toward improving your health. Too much processed sugar may increase your risk for various health conditions and it’s important to limit how much you consume.
Need help improving your eating habits?
Schedule an appointment with a dietitian.