If you’ve been reading evil-food listicles for as long as we’ve been writing them, you know all about the sneaky sugars in processed foods like bread, pasta sauce, and frozen dinners. But in those cases, it’s usually buried three or four deep in an ingredients list.
Then there are products that list sugar as the very first ingredient—which of course means that by weight, there’s more sweetener than any other ingredient.
It’s what you’d expect from a bag of gummy bears, sure. But barbecue sauce and matcha tea? You’ve got to be kidding us. We’re not saying all brands are guilty of junking up their offerings with more sugar than real-food ingredients, but let these 10 be a lesson: Check ingredients lists before you buy, even when you’re cruising a health food store.
1. Barbecue sauce
Got a craving for candy-coated chicken? Because if you brush your protein with some big-name barbecue sauce, you’ll get just that. More specifically, you’ll get a finger-lickin’ blend of: high fructose corn syrup, distilled vinegar, tomato paste, modified food starch, and less than 2% salt, pineapple juice concentrate, natural smoke flavor, spices, caramel color, sodium benzoate, molasses, corn syrup, dried garlic, sugar, tamarind, natural flavor. If that doesn’t make you want to tie on an apron and fire up the grill ASAP, we’re not sure what will.
2. Hot cocoa
We get it: Hot chocolate is no health food, but does a one-cup return to childhood on a brutally cold day really need to pack more than 10 (!) ingredients, the first two of which are sugar and corn syrup? If our social graces were any less intact, we would have thrown the box on the floor of aisle 5 and stormed out of the store.
3. Energy bars
Check the label on those seemingly innocent bars you’ve been pulling out of your backpack for years. If the first ingredient is brown rice syrup, that’s just deceptive packaged food speak for sugar. Instead, stave off hunger with one of these seven energy bars made from real food.
4. Milk chocolate-covered nuts
We’ve all been there: craving chocolate but ridden with too much guilt to pick up a candy bar. So, we go for something like chocolate-covered almonds or peanuts. Hey, there’s some protein and fiber in there, and only a light coating of chocolate, we think. In reality, there’s usually more milk chocolate than nuts, and the first ingredient in milk chocolate? You guessed it: sugar.
The green tea powder boasts a mile-long list of health benefits, but not all matcha is created equal. By nature, the stuff is earthy and smooth, but not very sweet. So some brands—including the matcha powder used at America’s most beloved coffee chain—come presweetened. When that’s the case, you’re stirring more sugar than tea into your drink.
6. Fat-free salad dressing
Take out fat, add sugar (and salt). That’s the rationale behind many big-name low- or no-fat bottled dressings. We recently plucked a gourmet-sounding sun-dried tomato vinaigrette from a grocery store shelf only to discover that there was hardly any tomato-y goodness inside the bottle. Instead, the ingredients list read: high fructose corn syrup, cider vinegar, distilled vinegar, maltodextrin, water, tomato paste, and less than 2% of sun-dried tomato, salt, xanthan gum, paprika, potassium sorbate, calcium disodium EDTA, spice, and natural flavor.
7. Lemon-flavored iced tea mix
It’s hard to even call this stuff tea. The ingredients: sugar, citric acid (to preserve tartness), instant tea powder (whatever that is), silicon dioxide (to prevent caking), natural flavor (again, whatever that is), and artificial color (red #40). It’s no surprise that one glass packs 18 grams—more than 4 teaspoons—of sugar. Not so refreshing, huh?
8. Chocolate-hazelnut spread
Hazelnuts, skim milk, cocoa—it’s all in there, but it all comes after sugar and in the ingredients list. C’mon, this stuff is just too good to be good for you!
9. Kids’ cereal
Most candy-, cookie- or cinnamon bun-inspired cereals at least charm us with using corn as a first ingredient, but a recent stroll down the breakfast foods aisle revealed that several character-clad boxes actually list sugar as the very first ingredient. Well, that’s one way to get your offspring amped up before school.
10. Gluten-free brownie mix
You know that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you realize an easy-to-find-anywhere brand finally cares about your gluten-free sweet tooth (and therefore, your health, obviously)? Yeah, well, the buzzkill starts as soon as you flip over the box and see this ingredients list: sugar, semi-sweet chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla), cocoa processed with alkali, rice flour, potato starch, corn starch, xanthan gum, and salt.