nourishing traditions + sustainable habits

Decoding Food Labels: Do you really know how much sugar you are eating?


Sugar is everywhere and we know that it is bad for us? But why is it so hard to give up?

One reason is that, even if we are avoiding ‘sweets’ we are still consuming huge amounts of sugars in the processed foods we eat. It’s in almost all of packaged foods (even the ones that market themselves as ‘healthy options’) from yogurt, soups, meats, spices, breads, cereals to salad dressings, marinades and other condiments. It is so important that we learn how to read labels and get into the habit of it always checking.

The healthiest choice would just be to avoid things premade and learn how to prepare it ourselves from fresh, whole food ingredients. Then we know exactly what goes into our food. But sometimes we aren’t there yet, so we need to know how to make informed decisions about what we feed to ourselves and our families.

First things first, here are some general nutritional guidelines (given to us by governmental bodies) to keep in mind when looking at your sugar consumption. I’d advise that even those levels (especially when its refined sugars) are too high. But here is what is recommended:

  • Men shouldn’t have more than 37.5 grams per day
  • Women shouldn’t have more than 25 grams per day
  • Children over 4 shouldn’t have more than 12 grams per day


I wanted to see how much sugar would be in a typical day of meals made from packaged foods. I opted for the ‘healthier’ marketed options and picked some typical choices one might make. I also used choices that would line up with the standard dietary guidelines based on grains and starches. I used British products because that is where I am at the moment, but if you are in the States you need to look even closer because generally American foods contain even higher levels of sugar than European foods.


  • Quaker Oats So Simple Apple Blueberry (one sachet)- 7.5 grams of sugar
  • 1 cup Semi Skimmed Milk- 9.6 grams of sugar
  • 1 cup 100% orange juice- 16.4 grams of sugar

Total Sugar: 33.5 grams


  • A bowl of New Covent Garden Carrot and Butternut Squash Soup- 13.3 grams of sugar
  • 1 slice of Hovis Wholemeal Bread- 1.6 grams of sugar

Total Sugar: 14.9 grams


  • 1/3 of a jar of Dolmio Original Bolognese Sauce- 9.3 grams of sugar
  • Beef Mince- 0 grams of sugar
  • 1 serving of Tesco Everyday Value Spaghetti Noodles- 1.9 grams of sugar
  • Mixed salad greens- 0 grams of sugar
  • Tesco Fat Free Vingarette- 1.8 grams of sugar

Total Sugar: 13 grams

Now if you were to eat just these meals, no snacks and water the rest of the day you would be consuming 61.4 grams of sugar–more than double the recommended maximum level. These are relatively ‘healthy’ meals as well.

Imagine if you threw some fast food in there, a few glasses of soda (fizzy juice), some kind of dessert or breakfast bar instead. Those levels would skyrocket even more. Sugary drinks are probably the biggest contributor to the huge amounts of sugar in our diets. Just one can of Coca Cola contains 35 grams of sugar, which is more sugar than women should even have in a whole day.

Recently, a lot of people have switched to diet sodas or diluting/fruit juice with ‘no added sugar’ thinking that they are healthier for them because they don’t contain sugar. But these drinks still contain artificial sweeteners which have been shown to cause more weight gain when used in place of sugar as well as cause other harmful effects to our bodies. Check out this study for more information about weight gain and artificial sweeteners. Ultimately, the best drink of choice is plain water.

In these example meals, I didn’t differentiate between refined and natural sugars. For example, the sugars in the milk and orange juice are natural occurring sugars, while the sugars in most everything else will be refined added sugars. When it comes down to it, natural sugars are better than refined, but in the end sugar is still sugar and needs to be limited.

While it is definitely a huge step forward to replace refined sugars with natural sugars, ultimately we should be reducing the amount of sugars we consume overall (whether natural or refined). Natural sugars seem to be easier to eat in moderation, it’s easier to stop when you feel full. The addictive behaviour attached to the consumption of refined sugar is much stronger than natural sugars. The more refined sugar we eat, the more refined sugar we crave.

If you want to take the first step towards a healthier, happier low sugar lifestyle but just don’t know how to begin, join me in my upcoming ’21 days to Tame Your Sweet Tooth group program’ that will be launching soon. It will include 21 days of low/no sugar recipes (and some healthier dessert recipes as well), a Facebook community of others working and helping each other towards the same goal, and lots of great info and challenges that will help you replace refined sugars for more natural ones and significantly lower your sugar intake overall. Sign up for my newsletter below to be the first to get all the sign up details and be the first to know when the program launches.



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If you have any questions or want to work with me, check out my individual and family health coaching page.

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