We all know the old saying about breakfast being the most important meal of the day, but what’s more important is what you eat, rather than when you eat it. Breakfast foods are one of the most heavily marketed foods due to people’s perception of how we should all start our day – think about it, there are entire aisles at the supermarket dedicated just to cereal!
While it’s clear that breakfast is important, it’s the food you choose to break your fast with that are the most important element.
When we think of sugary foods, we may be inclined to imagine ice cream, cakes, chocolate, and soda. But your morning meal can contain as much sugar as your favorite candy bar if you’re not mindful of the ingredients. Read on to discover what breakfast foods contain a surprising amount of sugar and how to cut down on your sugar intake.
What types of sugar are there and where can I find them?
Two types of sugars feature in the typical American diet: added sugars and naturally occurring sugars.
You can find naturally occurring sugars in foods like fruit (hence the name fructose) and dairy products (lactose from milk).
Added sugars include any sugars or sweeteners that are added to foods or drinks, by ourselves or during processing. Added sugars and sweeteners often include natural sweeteners like honey, white sugar, brown sugar, and other chemically manufactured caloric sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup.
While breakfast foods are often marketed as healthy, wholesome, and filling, they often contain far more sugar than we realize.
8 Sources of Hidden Sugar in Your Breakfast
- There are plenty of breakfast cereals, bars, and beverages that contain high amounts of natural and added sugars. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a cereal in the aisle that doesn’t have at least 7g of added sugar per serving. What’s worse, many companies will make their suggested serving size small to minimize the number on the nutritional label. Most cereal is low in fiber, and so that sugar can hit you all at once in an energy rush. No wonder so many kids are so full of energy! (Kid’s cereals are often the worst culprits, so keep an eye out if you have children.)
- Flavored Yogurt – Greek yogurt has been a popular breakfast food for a while, and with good reason. It’s good for your gut health and is a good source of calcium and protein. The issue lies in the popularity of flavored yogurt, which often contains high amounts of added sugar. If you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake, try topping your plain Greek yogurt with berries and a little honey or Stevia on top.
- Gluten-Free does not equal sugar-free. Many people believe, again, due to marketing, that gluten-free food is inherently healthier than food containing gluten. In reality, there’s no reason for anyone to eat gluten-free foods unless they have a gluten intolerance. Gluten-free breakfast products like pancake batters, bread loaves, and cereal bars sometimes contain more sugar than their gluten-containing counterparts. They’re often enhanced with sweeteners to account for the fact that they don’t contain gluten, which is worth keeping in mind if you’re trying to consume less sugar, especially in the mornings.
- Vegan and Dairy-Free foods do not equal low-sugar. The same rule applies to vegan and dairy-free breakfast foods. Many people choose to avoid animal products for health, environmental or ethical reasons, but it’s important to remember that not all vegan breakfast foods are healthier than dairy alternatives. Instead of assuming that plant-based cereals, pancakes, and spreads are naturally low-sugar, check the packaging and weigh up the healthiest option.
- Wholegrain and “fortified” cereals are not always the healthiest option. Breakfast cereal companies are notoriously sneaky when it comes to the phrasing they use on their packaging. It’s important to note that just because a cereal box features the phrases “whole grain” or “fortified with vitamins and minerals” doesn’t mean it’s a low-sugar option. If you’re looking to consume less sugar, it’s best to bypass the cereal aisle altogether or look for keto-friendly options.
- Granola bars are another surprisingly high-sugar breakfast food. These convenient little bars are often enhanced and bound with sweeteners such as honey brown sugar, brown sugar syrup, corn syrup, dextrose, and fructose. Some granola bars are coated in yogurt or chocolate, which can ramp up the sugars from 8 to 12 grams per serving. Instead of eating a standard granola bar, opt for the same weight in granola (around a third of a cup) and you’ll consume less than half the sugar per serving.
- It’s not just foods that can catch us out with added sugars. Juices are a staple in the American breakfast, but unless they’re pure fruit juice with pulp, these drinks can contain lots of added sugar and have a high glycemic index. This high glycemic index is reached when you juice the fruit, removing its fiber. This can spike your blood sugar and insulin levels, which can result in a jolt of energy and a crash shortly after – not unlike the effects of caffeine.
- Protein powder is another common culprit of over-sweetening. Many people replace meals with protein shakes and protein bars, which is fine if you’re looking to build muscle and also enjoy a balanced diet. But it’s important to make sure that your protein powder isn’t sabotaging you with added sugar. Protein bars are a convenient breakfast option, but they tend to be heavily processed with added sugar and chemicals to improve their shelf life.
So, how much sugar should we be eating per day? According to the National Health Service, adults should consume no more than 30g of added sugars each day – this equals about 7 sugar cubes. Watching what we eat for breakfast may sound like a chore, but reading the label can help us make more informed choices about what we eat for our first meal of the day. Plus, once you get into the habit of looking out for certain ingredients like corn and rice syrup, sucrose, dextrose, fructose, and maltose, you’ll spot them immediately and know what to avoid.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.