Which 'healthy' foods contain the most sugar?

We all know that, if we want to keep our weight down, we shouldn’t dive, mouth-first, into a chips packet before bed or down a sugary drink with our greasy take away lunch.

We also might assume that the right path to weight loss is to consume ‘healthy foods’.

But according to clinical nutritionist and founder of Nutritional Matters, Angela Emmerton, seemingly healthy foods can also be sugar-heavy.

“There are lots of people who don’t intentionally eat [excess levels] of sugar, in my belief,” says Emmerton. "But we are being a bit exploited as we live in an unfair food environment. Sugars come to our diet in processed packaged foods but we might not be aware that they are in our foods."

Emmerton encourages consumers to be critical of the following “perceived health foods”.


People often believe that all breakfast cereals, which look healthy, are good for you.

“Cereal packets may say they are gluten-free and high in vitamins like iron or that they are appealing to athletes," Emmerton says.

But don’t be fooled by marketing claims, as breakfast cereals are commonly heavy in sugars.

For example, Emmerton explains, the sugar content of a cereal can spike if it contains dried fruits or sugar-coated granola. 

“Some cereals have two to four teaspoons of sugar in them per serving and you might have two to three servings for breakfast. So you’ve already reached your sugar limit before you’ve started the day.”

She recommends that people make their own breakfast cereals at home – mix some seeds and nuts with oats or bran. At least you know what you are putting in your cereal and can control how much sugar will be consumed.

Gluten-free bircher muesli

This bircher muesli (overnight oats) is full of amazing texture. Each seed adds its own unique character. 

'Healthy' pre-packaged meals

“It’s not how many calories that you consume, it’s the source of the calories.”

Calorie-controlled pre-packaged meals may seem like an easy option to battle the bulge. But, Emmerton warns, they might have the opposite effect on your body. Some pre-packaged meals promise weight loss but often they are highly processed and contain a lot of sugar. 

“It’s not how many calories that you consume, it’s the source of the calories.”

Emmerton, an ambassador for That Sugar Film – airing on SBS on Sunday 18 March at 8.30pm – explains how Australian actor Damon Gameau (AKA that Sugarman) consumed the same amount of calories before a dieting experiment as he did during it, on camera: 2300 calories. The real change he made as part of the controversial dieting plan was that he just switched the type of food he ate.

As a result, he put on eight and a half kilograms, and 10 centimetres on his waist.

“So that experiment blows the myth on calories," she says. "It’s about the source of calories and what your body does with it.”

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Flavoured waters

Before you ditch filtered water for flavoured water, take a moment to look at the nutrition label at the back of the bottle to see how much sugar it actually contains. 

Various flavoured water brands are actually owned by some of the same companies, which produce sugary soft drinks. The main ingredient in these flavoured H20 drinks might be water (the key ingredient for traditional soft drinks may also be water) but it can also contain lots of sugar.

So be your own judge and always look at the ‘sugars’ part of the nutritional label to see if your flavoured water of choice lives up to its health claims.

Or, simply control the amount of sugar you consume by making your own flavoured water by adding herbs and a few slices of fresh fruit to a refreshing jug of H20. 

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Flavoured yoghurts, even those that claim to be healthy and ‘low fat’ can be sugar traps.

“A yoghurt might be full of vitamins and the label might feature strawberries on the front but it can still be full of sugar,” she says.

“If it’s low-fat, it might have lots of sugar in it to give it taste. If not, it may still be sweetened with an artificial sweetener.”

Homemade natural yoghurt bowl

Making your own yoghurt is very simple and economical. The main resource required is time – you just need to think ahead.

So err on the side of caution and buy only natural yoghurt. If you need more flavour, add ingredients to your unflavoured yoghurt yourself. But just be sure to include your extra additions, like dried fruits, when calculating your total daily sugar intake.

Muesli bars

“Muesli bars are often laden with sugar. So make your own muesli bar or protein ball," Emmerton says.

Ensure that the recipe you choose is full of nuts and seeds, contains only a small amount of dried fruits if needed, and minimises the use of sugar.

Artificial sweeteners or sugar alternatives

“Lots of sweeteners can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar." 

“A label which says ‘no sugar’ doesn’t always mean ‘no sugar’." Emmerton adds that a ‘no sugar’ claim may also mean that the product contains a sugar alternative.

Look at the ingredients list and scour for alternative words to describe sugar content. If a food product’s label lists dextrose, fructose, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, and maltose, think twice about its ‘sugar-free’ claims.

Food products may also include artificial sweeteners instead of sugar.

“Lots of sweeteners can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. If you are trying to kick a sugar addiction, then you are perpetuating that message that’s racing up to the brain [saying you need more sugar] and you are not getting yourself off the sugar train.”

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Fruit juices

“Fruit is a healthy part of a diet if you have it in moderation.”

Drinking a fruit juice is often better than drinking a soft drink as it usually contains less sugar. But that doesn’t make it good for you. A 250ml serve of orange juice is estimated to contain around five teaspoons of sugar. That means by drinking orange juice once a day, without eating anything else, you’ve almost reached your sugar limit.

This is because fruit contains fructose, a naturally occurring sugar.

“When you juice fruit yourself, you could use up to 10 pieces of fruit.

“Now you’d struggle to consume that much fruit in one sitting. That’s because the fibre found in [whole] fresh fruit slows down the release of intrinsic sugar in the fruit so you feel full because of the fibre. You don’t get the same amount of fibre or effect if you juice fruit. You won’t get that full from juice.

“Fruit is a healthy part of a diet if you have it in moderation.” Emmerton recommends that most people can have up to two serves of fruit a day. "If you are a diabetic, you may need to consider your fruit intake."

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Dried fruits

Dried fruit can be both good and bad for you. It all depends on the quantity you eat, given that they are usually high in natural sugars.

“For example, if you ate the same [amount of sugar] in fresh fruit that is in a small box of sultanas, you’d be eating 91 grapes.

“The concentration of sugar in dried fruits is a lot higher than what is in fresh fruits so it spikes your blood sugar levels.”

So if you want to eat dried fruit, just remember that it counts as part of your daily fruit tally. 

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Sports and energy drinks

According to an ACT government health fact-sheet, 600mls of an average soft drink contains over 16 teaspoons of sugar. Meanwhile, a 600ml sports drink bottle will contain between nine and 11 teaspoons of sugar and a 250ml energy drink will include almost seven teaspoons of sugar (that’s equal to around 26 teaspoons for a 600ml serving).

A recent University of Sydney study, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, also showed that energy drinks are more strongly linked to dental problems than traditional soft drinks.

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Don't believe all the hype

Emmerton advises consumers to always investigate the sugar content of foods themselves, by looking at the ‘sugars’ listing in the nutritional panel (under the carbohydrates listing) on the back of the packet.

The World Health Organisation recommends men have under nine teaspoons of sugar a day in order to prevent weight gain and obesity. “One teaspoon of sugar is about four grams,” she explains. “It’s also recommended that women should have no more than six teaspoons a day. So that means 24 grams of sugar a day is a healthy level.”

“You really have to be your own food detective. Don’t be swayed by anything you read on the front of food packets. Go straight to the back and read the ingredients and nutritional label."

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Watch 'That Sugar Film'

That Sugar Film tells the story of one man’s journey to discover the bitter truth about sugar.

Damon Gameau embarks on a unique experiment to document the effects of a high sugar diet on a healthy body, consuming only foods that are commonly perceived as ‘healthy’. Through this entertaining and informative journey, Damon highlights some of the issues that plague the sugar industry, and where sugar lurks on supermarket shelves. 

That Sugar Film airs on SBS on Sunday 18 March at 8.30pm.

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