It’s no secret that excess sugar is less than ideal for our health, however, even with this information many people still struggle to limit the amount of sugar that they consume. It’s sweet, it’s addictive and the thought of cutting it out cold turkey can feel completely overwhelming, especially if you are just getting started. Not to mention, although there are many obvious sources of sugar in our food, such as baked goods and candy, it’s the not-so-obvious and hidden sources of sugar often found in so-called “healthy” options that make it more difficult to reduce our sugar intake. So, in order to help get you set up for success, here are 10 sugar-free swaps for common household ingredients and some simple tips to help get you started.
Types of Sugar in Food
It is important to understand that there are two different types of sugar in our food; natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars are forms of sugar that are naturally occurring in food; they are forms of simple carbohydrates, such as glucose, fructose, and lactose, and are found in foods such as fruit, milk, yogurt, and certain vegetables. Conversely, added sugars are any sugars that are added to food or beverages during the production or preparation process. Added sugars are any form of sugar that can be added to food, typically processed foods, and include white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, or any other code word for sugar. Depending on the type of food being produced, some foods may actually contain both natural and added sugars. For example, vanilla-flavored yogurt contains the natural sugars present in the milk, as well as the added sugars used to sweeten it.
Is Sugar That Bad for You?
Consumed in small amounts and in conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise, sugar can certainly be consumed as an occasional treat, however, when consumed in excess, sugar can have some devastating health consequences. In fact, excess consumption of sugar, especially in the form of processed foods, has been linked to many of society’s most common degenerative diseases, including obesity in children and adults, type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer.
How Much Sugar Should You Eat in a Day?
Accordingly to dietary survey intakes, Canadians consume an average of 51 grams of added sugar per day, which is the equivalent of roughly two full chocolate bars per day – that’s a lot of sugar! Health Canada suggests choosing foods with little to no added sugars and choosing water rather than sugar-sweetened drinks, while the World Health Organization recommends reducing free sugars to less than 10% of daily energy intake, while a further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day could provide additional health benefits.
What Does Sugar-Free Mean?
The term sugar-free typically refers to foods that do not contain added sugar, however, it does not consider foods that contain naturally-occurring sugars. Although total sugar intake is important, because the sugar found in whole foods such as fruit and milk does come with nutritional benefits, including fiber, vitamins, and minerals, it is (for the most part) not considered problematic. However, it is important to understand, that when reading labels the term “sugar-free” or “free of sugars” does not always mean that the product is completely free of added sugars. According to Health Canada, the term “sugar-free” is defined as food that contains less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving, which means that the food in question may actually contain some added sugar, however, it is such a small amount that it is considered negligible.
10 Sugar-Free Swaps
Although limiting sugar from your diet is ideal, you don’t need to do it all at once. When it comes to your diet, small gradual changes are often more effective than attempting to do everything at once and, more often than not, they end up being longer-lasting. So, if you are looking to limit your overall sugar intake, here are some simple sugar-free swaps that you can implement today.
1. Swap Cereal for Oatmeal
Breakfast cereals are arguably one of the worst offenders of added sugar and also one of the most commonly consumed. Popular breakfast cereals such as Raisin Bran, Oatmeal Crisp, and Honey Nut Cheerios contain 14, 13, and 9 grams of sugar per serving respectively, while even “healthier” options such as Vector and Kashi Go Lean Crunch include 11 and 12 grams of sugar per serving making them more of a dessert than a healthy breakfast! Therefore, by simply swapping breakfast cereal for oatmeal you can save yourself a ton of sugar in the process. If you find plain oats too bland or boring simply add some fruit, cinnamon, or a drizzle of honey or maple syrup. Although you may still be adding some sugar, at least you are in control of how much you are adding and you can slowly reduce the amount as your palate becomes more accustomed to the sugar-free options. Moreover, if you are feeling adventurous, you can also mix things up by making baked oatmeal, overnight oats, or Bircher muesli as an alternative to plain rolled oats.
2. Swap Soda for Sparkling Water
Not only are added sugars in our food problematic but added sugars in our beverages are cause for concern as well. Conventional sodas are commonly made with high-fructose corn syrup which has been linked to a number of health concerns and, while diet soda may seem like a better choice, the artificial sweeteners found in many sugar-free options have also been shown to be a less than ideal choice. So, instead of Coke or Pepsi, try reaching for sparkling water or flavored sparkling water instead. These days, it’s very easy to find unsweetened flavored sparkling water flavors, such as lemon, lime, grapefruit, and peach, which can really help to satisfy the craving for a bubbly drink. If soda is really something that you struggle with you, you can also try using stevia-sweetened sodas as a simple sugar-free swap to help ease yourself through the transition period.
3. Swap Sweetened Milk for Plain Milk
Whether it’s cow’s milk, almond, coconut, or oat, opting for plain versions is a simple way to help limit your overall sugar intake. Sweetened chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry milk should be considered a treat and only consumed from time to time, as a mere cup of chocolate milk can contain up to 28 grams of sugar. With that said, depending on the brand you can actually find flavored milks that are unsweetened, however, be sure to read the ingredients to be sure.
4. Swap Granola Bars for Nuts or Trail Mix
Although the name sounds innocent, if you are not paying attention to the brand and type, many “healthy” granola bars contain just as much, if not more, sugar than a chocolate bar. Although labels often feature claims such as “high protein” or “high in fibre”, once you start reading the ingredients you might be surprised to see how much sugar some of the more popular brands actually contain. Although you can certainly find granola bars that are low in sugar, a simple sugar-free swap is to opt for a handful of nuts or some (sugar-free) trail mix instead.
5. Swap Dip for Hummus
To be clear, not all dips are a poor choice, but some of the pre-packaged options do contain added sugar and vegetable oils, which are both less-than-ideal ingredients. So, whether it’s an after-school snack or a lunch box ingredient, hummus is a great alternative to store-bought dips. Not only is hummus easy to find and comes in many different flavors, but it’s higher in protein and fiber than most dips. If hummus is not your thing, you can also use tzatziki or guacamole as a sugar-free alternative.
6. Swap Canned Fruit for Fresh or Frozen Fruit
Fruit itself does contain natural sugars so it will never be a completely sugar-free option, and it does come with fiber, vitamins and minerals, and a host of health benefits, but the same can not be said for canned fruit. Canned or jarred fruits are often packed in liquid sugar or syrup so, in addition to the naturally occurring sugar, they can come loaded with up 24 grams of sugar per half-cup serving. So, if you or your kids want to snack on fruit, not a problem, just be sure to reach for fresh or frozen fruit instead.
7. Swap Flavoured Yogurt for Plain Yogurt
Similar to fruit, yogurt contains natural sugars in the form of lactose, the sugar presents in milk. Therefore, you will never truly be able to eat completely sugar-free yogurt, however, you can limit the amount of added sugar it contains by opting for plain yogurt instead of sweetened versions. In addition to breakfast cereal, flavored yogurts are one of the largest breakfast sources of sugar and by simply opting for plain, full-fat yogurt you can easily help to keep your overall intake down. If you find plain yogurt too tart or bitter, simply add fruit, honey, or maple syrup to help sweeten it, this way you can control the total amount of added sugar as opposed to buying the pre-sweetened versions in which the sugar content is out of your control.
8. Swap Peanut Butter for Natural Peanut Butter
I get it, regular peanut butter is delicious, but if we are being honest with ourselves, conventional peanut butter is much more like peanut butter-flavored icing than actual peanut butter. There are essentially three ways to make peanut butter; 1) with only peanuts, 2) with peanut, salt, and/or oil, and 3) with peanut, salt, oil, sugar, and added preservatives. Natural peanut butter is the “true” peanut butter since it is made of primarily peanuts and minimal (if any) added ingredients, and by simply opting for natural peanut butters over conventional peanut butters you can save yourself up to 3 grams of sugar per serving, as well as unnecessary vegetable oils and preservatives. Although it might seem small and insignificant, every little bit of sugar adds up throughout the day, and opting for natural versions can help to reduce your total sugar intake.
9. Swap Salad Dressing for Homemade Dressing
Pre-made salad dressings, as well as pre-made sauces and marinades, are common hiding spots for added sugar. Some of the most popular dressing flavors, such as ranch, Thousand Islands, caesar, and Asian, all contain small to moderate amounts of added sugar. Of course, there are brands and versions that do not contain added sugar at all, and by simply reading the ingredients you can identify them, however, learning to make your own dressings at home is a quick and easy solution and sugar-free swap. Although it may seem time-consuming at first, once you get the basics down you will see how easy it is to make homemade salad dressings and how much money it can save you at the same time.
10. Swap Flavoured Lattes for Plain Lattes
Don’t shoot the messenger, but your mocha, chai latte, and salted caramel latte are closer to milkshakes than actual coffee. All lattes will contain some sugar since there is lactose naturally occurring in milk, but the flavored versions typically contain a ton of added sugar, up to 45 grams in some cases. Although the sugar-free syrups may seem like a healthy substitution, much like soda, they are typically made with artificial sweeteners which are less than ideal for gut health and overall health. So, instead of the vanilla latte with whip cream and sprinkles, opt for a plain latte (with the milk of your choice), sweeten it as needed, and save the fancy flavored coffees for a once-in-a-while treat.
The Bottom Line
Although individually these swaps may seem small and insignificant, cumulatively they can add up to a big change. In fact, by simply making these 10 sugar-free swaps you could save yourself hundreds of grams of sugar per day. It’s important to understand that eating well is not about never eating sugar again, rather, it’s about learning to control the total amount and consuming it in moderation in conjunction with a healthy diet and lifestyle. Regardless of where you are or what your health goals are, the more awareness you can bring to your total sugar intake, and the more you can focus on natural sources, as opposed to added sources in processed foods, the better off you will be.