Ask JJ: Sneaky Sugars

06/16/2015 03:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

Dear JJ: You talk about sneaky sugars being hidden culprits that make us fat and sick. I know obvious sources, like soda and candy, but where do "hidden" sugars lurk? It sounds so confusing!

"Sugar is the new sodium, reviled for its evilness," writes Theresa Albert. "It is contributing to the rise of everything from diabetes to Fatty Liver Disease, according to The Canadian Liver Foundation."

We know obvious sources. If you eat a candy bar or guzzle a can of soda, you're getting sugar, right? What become confusing are sneaky sugars that hide in seemingly innocuous foods. According to Emily Luchetti, less than 20 percent of the sugar we eat comes from real sugar.

"The rest," she says, "is hidden sugar that shows up in processed foods, sodas and juices. Some of these are supposedly 'healthy' foods like some granolas, yogurts, salad dressings and smoothies. It is this hidden sugar that sneaks up on us adding pounds to our waistlines and contributing to the near epidemic levels of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease in America."

Even the most health-conscious among us struggle to know everywhere these sneaky sugars hide or how to avoid them. It can feel incredibly daunting.

Not only that; sugar is often not even listed as sugar on the ingredients list. It may be hiding there with names like maltodextrin, barley malt, or fruit juice concentrate.

Let's call a few offenders out of hiding. Among my numerous sneaky-sugar sources include:

Juices. The best vegetable juices and green drinks are straight green, meaning, made only from vegetables. Otherwise, you have to be sure they're not tweaked with added fruit and bottled as "healthy" juices. Check the label (especially for apples, carrots, or beets), or, better yet, make your own. One popular green juice -- actually mostly fruit -- contains nearly 12 teaspoons of sugar in a 15.2-ounce bottle.

Marinara sauce. Take a look at that jar of marinara in your fridge or pantry. Shocked about its sugar amount? I sure was. Easy reduced-sugar swap: Make your own. Besides, doesn't a sauce made with fresh tomatoes, basil, and olive oil sound a heck of a lot better than a sugar-filled jar of boring marinara?

Meat sauces. Barbecue sauce, steak sauces, and other tomato-based flavorings (including ketchup) are notorious for sneaky sweeteners. Their sugar sources include everything from brown sugar to molasses and honey, and two tablespoons can contain up to 13 grams of sugar.

Wheat bread. "Two slices of whole wheat bread now raise your blood sugar more than two tablespoons of table sugar," writes Mark Hyman, MD. "The biggest scam perpetrated on the unsuspecting public is the inclusion of 'whole grains' in many processed foods full of sugar and wheat, giving the food a virtuous glow."

I could go on, but you get my not-so-sweet point: Sugar hides nearly everywhere. So how do you become sugar-savvier and avoid these sneaky sugars without turning sugar sleuthing into a second hobby?

"Stop eating processed foods and stop drinking sugary drinks," says Luchetti. "Being mindful about your choices can make a huge difference in the amount of sugar we consume."

Hyman agrees. "The best way to avoid foods that are bad for you is to stay away from foods with health claims on the labels," he writes. "They are usually hiding something bad."

I vote for a whole food, low-sugar impact diet. You don't have to worry about tons of added sugar sneaking into steamed broccoli or quinoa, right? Avoid processed foods, and if you do buy them, keep the many (57, to be exact) names for sugar list nearby.

Even when you stick with whole foods, you might get more sugar than you bargain for. Concentrated-sugar fruits like dates and raisins -- aka "nature's candy -- provide a great example.

That doesn't mean you need to completely ditch sugar. Instead, you'll want to choose smart sugar based on a food's fiber, fructose, nutrient density, and glycemic load.

I've done the work for you in my Sugar Impact Diet, ranking the sugar impact of virtually every food on the planet. Don't worry: You're not going cold turkey here. My plan helps you gradually taper off the sweet stuff so you don't suffer withdrawal and other miseries.

As you've become more aware about sneaky sugars, what food most surprises you as high-sugar impact? Share yours below. And keep those great questions coming at