There’s Sugar in That?

IMG_5315I’ve never been a fan of dieting. Or perhaps I should say, I’ve never been good at dieting. I’ve dabbled with different variations of diets over the years, including the “fruit and tea” diet (introduced to me in Bulgaria after many people pointed out my full cheeks and round belly), the “1200-calorie-per-day” diet (which I foolishly attempted while training for an ultramarathon), and yes, admittedly at times even the “no food” diet (what college girl didn’t try that one?)… all with no real long-term success and an instead, and increased craving for cookies. Indeed, cookies have always been my downfall. My mother even nicknamed me Cookie Monster early on in life. Today, in my mid-thirties, not much has changed, although I try to balance my fondness for cookies with plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean organic proteins, and whole grains. And of course, with running. Always with running.


Even my slippers are fit for Cookie Monster.

When M. announced earlier this month that he would be starting a 28-day healthful eating challenge through his cross-fit gym , I was a bit wary.

A diet? I don’t like diets. Sounds to me like 28 days of being hungry and grumpy. 

He clarified the challenge, explaining that it’s not a diet, and that any weight loss would be a side benefit. Rather, the goals of the challenge are to be more mindful of what we are eating, and to cut out certain foods and additives simply by choosing whole foods (something we already do pretty well) and avoiding sugar. That’s the big one. No sugar. The implications of this were not lost on me.

No sugar = No cookies.

The official guidelines advise against eating foods containing any of the following: dairy, grains, legumes, sugars of any kind (natural or artificial), processed foods, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, alcohol, pop, and fruit juices of any kind. When we saw the list of banned foods, we both had the same questions:

How is this sustainable?

How will we ever eat at a restaurant?

More challenging still, how will we ever eat dinner at someone’s house? 

Not to mention that restrictive eating habits and foreign service life don’t usually mix very well… sort of like trying to be a vegetarian in Bulgaria. (You don’t eat meat? We’ll have chicken!)

Knowing this would be temporary and primarily a way to more closely examine our eating habits, in the name of solidarity, I decided to join M. in the challenge… for the most part. Some of the stipulations seemed a bit too restrictive for me as a long distance runner, but in large part, I have spent the last couple of weeks trying to be creative with our meals and snacks so that they fall within the limits of the challenge while still being tasty and filling. Some of our favorites have been baked fish (something we ate a lot of before the challenge), eggplant parmesan without the parmesan, and homemade apricot-almond-date bars, which I found online and closely resemble Lärabars. I also caught the recipe for a delicious banana and walnut smoothie while watching the Food Network last week, and have made it several times for breakfast.


Homemade apricot-date-almond bars. Those are the only ingredients in these tasty snacks. Made with dates – nature’s candy – they are sweet without any added sugar.

Now at the end of our second week of the challenge, we have come to some astounding realizations. Eliminating foods like dairy and grains is relatively easy. Even avoiding items made with vegetable oils, soy, and corn hasn’t been too difficult. What has really shocked us has been finding how many foods have added sugar and sweeteners. While the best strategy has simply been to avoid anything with a nutrition label, we have found that many items, even those we previously considered to be minimally processed, from seasoned salt to chicken broth, contain some form of sugar or artificial sweetener.


I wasn’t too shocked to find that this bottle of Worcestershire sauce has something in it to sweeten it up – in this case, molasses and sugar. But to find them as the second and third ingredients? I wasn’t expecting that. I’d never given it much thought before.


It’s no secret that sugar is often included in salsas. In this one, however, apparently sugar is an added ingredient in chipotle peppers, which indicates to me that the peppers went from one jar to another.


I often use seasoned salt instead of regular salt to add a little more flavor to my dishes. What I didn’t know is that it contains maltodextrin, an artificial sweetener. I don’t quite know why maltodextrin is needed in seasoned salt.

Most surprising to me, so far, as been finding sugar, albeit a very small amount, added to chicken broth. Organic chicken broth, at that. Normally, I make my own chicken broth by boiling a chicken and removing the bones and meat, but I like to keep some store-bought broth in the pantry for times when I don’t have any of my own on hand. I assumed in purchasing organic broth that I was essentially buying in a package what I make at home. Not so.


It might be organic sugar, but it’s still added sugar. I don’t understand.

Another surprise: In fact, the only chicken broth I found at our local grocery store without added sugar was Rachael Ray’s non-organic brand. Hmmmm.


This chicken broth, though not organic, contains no added sugar. It raises an important question: Organic broth with sugar, or non-organic broth with no sugar… what do you think?

While M. and I both agree that we would like to re-incorporate healthful whole grains, peanut butter, and the occasional cookie or cupcake into our diets, we have learned a lot about the hidden ingredients, and especially the sugar and sweeteners we are unintentionally and unknowingly consuming in some of our foods. I like sugar, and I already get plenty of it from all of the goodies that I love to bake. I certainly don’t need any more of it in my chicken soup and my salsa. This experience has left us wondering why sugar would possibly be added to these kinds of foods when they already have so many wonderful natural flavors.

It has been fun to learn of innovative ways to create flavorful meals without added sugar and artificial sweeteners. Most of all, we have found that really reading the labels- not simply the nutrition facts, but the list of ingredients as well- has been a huge eye-opener, and something we will carry with us in the future as we continue to practice healthful eating habits.

And what about you? What are some of your favorite whole-food, no-sugar-added recipes? What are some hidden ingredients that you try to avoid?

Thank you for reading!

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