Sneaky sugar in everyday supermarket foods

Most sugar in our diet comes from processed foods – including savoury ones.

Sweet surprise

High sugar consumption has copped a large part of the blame for the obesity epidemic, and there's increasing evidence that it's also linked with high blood pressure, blood lipids and type 2 diabetes independently of its contribution to weight gain.

The World Health Organisation has recommended people cut sugar consumption back to less than 10% of daily kilojoule intake, which for adults amounts to around 55g per day. 

Most of the sugar we consume today comes from processed foods, rather than sugar added at the table or in cooking. Processed foods higher in added sugars are often a source of empty calories, lacking in essential nutrients or dietary fibre, and may displace more nutrient-dense foods, leading to overfed and undernourished people. 

Cutting back on these sorts of foods could be an effective way of curbing excessive intake of sugar and improving the nutritional quality of your diet.

Dessert for dinner?

We all know foods like soft drinks, desserts, biscuits and confectionery contain high levels of sugar, and many are aware that it can be quite high in things that seem healthy – like yoghurt, breakfast cereal or non-dairy milks.

With many people trying to control their sugar consumption, we were interested to see how much sugar is hidden in savoury ready-meals or sauces – something you'd eat for dinner, rather than a snack or sweet treat. 

Here are some examples containing 10g (2 ½ teaspoons) or more per serve – plus one actual dessert, for comparison.

Sugar in processed meals and cooking sauces
Product Sugar (grams)* Teaspoons of sugar*
Griff's Sweet & Sour Pork 30g 7.5 tsp
Heinz Soup of the Day Sweet Potato, Veg and Chickpea 15g 3.75 tsp
Dolmio Classic Tomato with basil pasta sauce 10.1g 2.5 tsp
McCain Roast Turkey 16g 4.0 tsp
Kan Tong Chinese BBQ cooking sauce 18g 4.5 tsp
McCain Healthy Choice Lemon Chicken 23.1g 5.75 tsp
Heinz Spaghetti and Meatballs 10.1g
2.5 tsp
Woolworths Homebrand Sweet & Sour Simmer Sauce 32.4g 8.0 tsp
Woolworths Select Baked Cheesecake Raspberry & White Chocolate 6.8g 1.75 tsp

* Based on recommended serving size stated on pack. Teaspoons rounded to nearest quarter of a teaspoon.

Many of these foods (except, perhaps, the cheesecake) contain nutritional benefits such as protein and phytonutrients, and need not be avoided as part of a balanced diet. But if you are watching your intake of sugar, read the labels and be mindful that they contribute to your daily recommended maximum intake.

Shopping tips:

  • It might be obvious that ready meals with names like 'Sweet & Sour' or 'Honey Soy' contain sugar, but more innocuous sounding names, like 'Lemon Chicken' or 'Chicken Teriyaki' can also contain high levels of added sugar.
  • The sugar content of the Roast Turkey ready meal is largely due to the cranberry sauce, which you could avoid.
  • Simmer sauces, stir fry sauces or marinades with 'sweet' or 'honey' in the name generally contain added sugar. Other sauces high in sugar include teriyaki and some Asian BBQ sauces.
  • There is naturally occurring sugar in vegetables, and quite high levels in some such such as peas, corn and sweet potato, and this will appear under 'sugars' in the nutrient panel. But many soups or pasta sauces made from these products also contain added sugar – check the ingredients. We're campaigning for sugar content in nutrient panels to distinguish between 'added sugar' and 'naturally occurring' sugar – find out more about our campaign.