You may have an eagle-eye for spotting hidden carbs thanks to the help you found in this guide, but can you confidently say the same about hidden sugars?
Sugar and all its processed forms hide in more foods than most people realize.
And if you’re not paying very close attention, these hidden sugars could be one huge factor holding you back from reaching ketosis.
After all, if your carb count is not within the ketmo-safe range of 20-50g (depending on your needs), your body won’t be able to effectively switch from using carbs for energy to fat.
This means you could be stuck in a pre-keto limbo where you don’t feel your best, don’t make any progress and may even gain weight!
Before you let your frustrations leave you feeling like keto “isn’t working”, you may have to take a closer at look at the sugar in the foods you’ve been eating.
Luckily, this is an easy fix when you know what to look for.
With a better understanding of where these “extra” sugars are hiding, you’ll be able to completely eliminate them from your diet with your eyes wide open.
To help you out, here’s what today’s guide has in store:
Before we can dive into the specific foods to avoid, let’s talk about how to read a food label first.
Most of the hidden sugars we’ll be discussing have the gall to hide right in plain sight. You just don’t know it because savvy marketers have done a great job at masking the truth.
Be weary of any foods with the following phrases on their label:
- No sugar added
- No refined sugar
- No added sugar
- 0g added sugar
What you see here with these phrases is a loophole; it’s a way for food manufacturers to promote their product as sugar- and carb-free when that’s not truly the case.
Here’s what I mean:
No sugar added, no added sugar and 0g of added sugar are essentially the same thing: they all mean there’s no extra sugars added during the food’s manufacturing process.
But that doesn’t mean the food is sugar-free.
In most cases, it’s not even close.
Pepsi’s team learned this the hard way when it slapped the “no sugar added” label on its Naked Juice bottles, which can clock in around 27g of sugar for a half bottle and 64g for the whole thing[*].
Chances are, if you’re seeing that label on a product it already has too much sugar in it and should be avoided.
So what about “no refined sugar” claims?
Turns out, the no refined sugar label is total BS too.
Yes, technically the food doesn’t contain refined sugar specifically, but it’s allowed to contain alternative versions of it.
So you’re essentially getting the same sugar, just under a different name.
Including both sugar and sugar alcohols, there are over 100 versions of sugar out there[*].
And some of these pseudonyms for sugar almost sound healthy:
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Invert sugar
- Brown sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- Corn syrup
- Crystal dextrose (okay, not this one)
And the list goes on.
Since there’s far too many sugary alternatives to remember, this is where reading the label clearly, and past the no refined sugars statement, is key — especially if ketosis is your goal.
You need to consider sugar, carb and sugar alcohols amounts (more on this next), per serving, as well as do a quick but thorough scan of the ingredients to see how early on the sweetener is mentioned.
The higher up it is on the label (meaning, it’s towards the beginning of the ingredient list), the higher the concentration of sugar (read: run).
If you sense too many suspiciously sweet ingredients in there, even if you can pronounce them and they sound okay, tread lightly and do a quick Google search to see if you’ve unmasked yet another sugar.
The next sabotagers to consider are sugar alcohols.
Sugar alcohols, a popular sugar alternative, sound good on paper: they provide a similarly sweet flavor of sugar for a fraction of the calories and less of a metabolic hit on your system.
But, once again, don’t be fooled here.
While some options are better for you than others, sugar alcohols are not always carb-free.
Some varieties contain enough carbs to throw off your daily macro count completely, which means it’s certainly worth paying attention to.
And just like sugar, there’s some leeway when it comes to labeling you should also know about[*]:
No added sugar and sugar free foods must include the amount of sugar alcohols (in grams) on the Nutrition Label by law now.
- But if there’s more than one type of sugar alcohol being used, the amount in grams is hidden under the Total Carbohydrate number instead of being listed on its own as a sugar alcohol.
So if you’re quickly glancing at the nutrition label and happily see 0g of sugar, yet you fail to subtract these from the true total carb count, it’s no wonder your macros are off.
You must start paying attention to both figures anytime you’re dealing with a product containing sugar alcohols.
With sugar alcohols, you should subtract half of the total amount from your Total Carb count.
So if the label says there are 10g of sugar alcohols and 20g of total carbs (30g combined total), the true adjustment becomes 15g of total carbs and 15g of sugar alcohols (half the combined total).
Eat foods with this kind of a breakdown and you’ll never reach ketosis.
But how are you supposed to know what a sugar alcohol looks like?
Fortunately, there aren’t 100 to memorize this time, which means you should be able to easily identify these while shopping:
- Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates
- Vegetable glycerin
- Yacon syrup
You should also know how sugar alcohols interact and affect your body because things can get weird.
Sugar Alcohols Are Never Completely Digested
Sugar alcohols work their way through your system slowly — and they don’t ever fully digest.
This is why they don’t affect your blood sugar levels as hard as real sugar.
Because of this long and seemingly never-ending digestion, sugar alcohols can end up fermenting in your stomach and upsetting the healthy bacteria balance in your gut.
This can then lead to unwanted and uncomfortable side effects such as gas, diarrhea and bloating[*].
So, to be safe, take it easy on the sugar alcohols if you must consume them at all.
You’re better off avoiding artificial additives. I’ll share a few healthier alternatives towards the end of this guide so you’re not SOL without them.
But before we get to the healthy portion of this guide, let’s talk about the worst places sugar and sugar alcohols are hiding first.
If you want to reach and maintain ketosis, you’re going to need to cut these foods out of your diet ASAP:
#1: Sugar Free Drinks, Foods, Etc.
Okay, so technically sugar free drinks don’t contain sugar.
But they do contain those sugar alcohols we just talked about, many of which are high in carbs[*].
So even though you’re saving on the sugar count, you’re actually adding to your overall carb spend which negates any possible “savings.”
Don’t be fooled into thinking sugar free equals keto friendly.
Because it doesn’t.
And the same goes for this next food.
#2: Protein Bars
Protein bar manufacturers are getting clever.
They know consumers are looking for low sugar options that also contain pronounceable ingredients.
But, just because sugar isn’t physically listed on the label and you can easily pronounce rice syrup, honey and molasses doesn’t mean they’re any better for you.
In fact, they could be even worse if their sugar count is high enough.
Plus, with overly processed junk foods like these, you’re also jeopardizing your total carb budget. One single bar can be as high as half — if not all — of your carbs for the entire day.
Check the nutrition label and the ingredients list to make sure there aren’t any hidden, possibly “healthy” sounding sweeteners lurking in plain sight.
You also need to be careful with the next item on our list since there’s not always labels attached.
#3: Green Smoothies
Steer clear of store-bought smoothies, even if they claim they’re only packed with green veggies and very few fruits or added sugars.
See how this Naked Juice Green Machine smoothie stacks up:
While not as bad as a tropical fruit smoothie, this bottle still clocks in 4g of sugar if you down the whole bottle with zero fiber.
So if you’re trying to stay under 25g of carbs and 10g of sugar, this drink will eat up a huge chunk of that.
Freshly-made smoothies from juice bars aren’t any better.
Check out how this Tropical Smoothie Detox Green compares:
That’s a whopping 48g of carbs and 32g of sugar in what’s being promoted as a “Detox Green Smoothie.”
There’s nothing detoxifying about adding a bunch of carbs and sugar to your system.
The marketers at Trop50 are also trying to confuse you into thinking their updated version of orange juice with 50% less sugar and calories is safe to drink, even while you’re dieting.
But this isn’t the case, especially on keto.
Here’s what I mean:
From looking at this, you’ll get half the sugar and calories and no artificial sweeteners in Trop50.
Sounds good until you hit the nutrition facts:
An 8oz glass is still 13g of carbs and 10g sugar, two things that will definitely hurt your chances of reaching ketosis.
And if that’s how you’re starting your day, it can only spiral downward from there.
As a rule of thumb, fruit juice should be off your keto menu and replaced with protein and MCT oil or collagen smoothies instead.
#4: Fruits (Even Keto-Friendly Ones)
You know you need to cast aside yummy fruits like pineapples, bananas and apples because they’re way too high in sugars (even though they’re a natural source of sugar).
But even keto-approved fruits contain a precarious amount of sugar if you’re not measuring out your portions diligently. Here’s the sugar count in one cup of:
- Raspberries 5.5g
- Blackberries 7g
- Strawberries 7.5
- Blueberries 15g
Though keto fruits are packed with vitamins, antioxidants and fiber, you still can’t go crazy. The same happens with veggies.
Certain vegetables are wonderful additions to your keto diet in moderation — especially if they come from this list of keto-approved veggies.
Go overboard with your veggies and they may have enough sugar in one cup to topple you out of ketosis[*]:
- Tomatoes 4g
- Bell peppers (yellow, orange and red) 6.3g
- Carrots 6.1g
- Winter squash 10g
- Sweet potatoes 13g
- Sweet onions 16.6g
Don’t let this next food fool you either.
#6: Asian Sauces
So you know better than to order entrees like sweet and sour chicken since the sauce is sugar-based and the meat is fried, but even the less obvious ones can fool you too.
For example, beef and broccoli sounds keto-friendly at first, but when you look closer, even homemade varieties have over 16g of sugar[*].
If you’re craving takeout, try keto friendly alternatives and you’ll shave off enough sugar and carbs to get one step closer to your weight loss goals.
The same is also true for this next food.
#7: Anything Barbecued (With One Possible Exception)
Most barbecue sauces are ketchup, syrup and brown sugar-based.
Dry rub options may be the only exception but even these are questionable on keto. As you saw in this guide, spice mixes have hidden carbs so you’ll need to account and adjust for this.
A better option is whipping up a batch of your own keto-friendly barbecue sauce or spice rub mix.
Lucky for you, it’s not difficult to do and this BBQ sauce recipe is just as tasty (if not better) than what you’re probably already eating.
While sauces may be somewhat obvious, this next one usually isn’t.
#8: Nut Butters
Did you know even seemingly healthy nut butters may be harboring hidden sugars too?
Whether peanut, almond or cashew butter, certain jars can contain anywhere from 3-12g of sugar per serving — which is only two tablespoons!
While three or four grams per serving sounds manageable, you have to remember portion control here because two tablespoons is way smaller than it looks when you physically measure it.
That’s what makes nut butters a diet assassin; have just a hair too much (which is so easy to do) and you could be kicked out of the ketosis club.
So unless you’re buying nut butter that’s made fresh and only includes the nuts themselves, or you’re making your own, you must check the nutrition label for hidden sugars.
Another less obvious food sharing this same problem is dairy.
While dairy may help give you an added boost of fat, if you’re not on the defensive, it can also sneak in way too many sugars.
See what I mean in this 8oz glass of goat milk:
Many milks, yogurts and cheeses contain lactose (although not all varieties do), which is essentially a sugar made of both glucose and galactose.
When these sugars enter your bloodstream, they act just like refined sugar in candy and natural ones found in fruit (read: insulin spikes, surge in energy followed by a drop and no ketosis).
So does that mean dairy is off limits?
Certain varieties, yes.
Low fat and fat free varieties are loaded up with sugars in an effort to counteract the fact that the fat and flavor have been removed.
Many yogurts also contain a sky-high amount of added sweeteners (or syrupy fruit) which puts these on the keto Do Not Eat List as well.
In the case of yogurt, reach for unflavored Greek yogurts and double check the label and ingredient list to make sure there’s no hidden sweeteners.
As for milk, you’re better off grabbing a no-carb cheese stick instead of drinking a glass of milk if you’re looking for the calcium.
One glass contains 7.9g of sugar and 12.8g of total carbs[*]:
Gravitate towards cheeses like blue cheese, gouda, mozzarella and brie and you’ll get a hit of fat without the added sugar.
Here’s what a serving of blue cheese clocks in at:
For more help separating the safe dairy on keto from those you should avoid, check out this guide when you’re done here.
And before you shrug your shoulders and think you’re in the clear because you buy non-dairy milk alternatives, check out this next section.
#10: Non-Dairy Milks
With the rise of alternative milk options like coconut, almond and even hemp milk, it may seem like a good idea to ditch the dairy and head for these.
Buyer beware here.
If you’re not used to these types of milks, they may not be your cup of tea. And then you’ll want a flavored variety to make it easier to drink.
Yet anytime you see flavors like vanilla or hazelnut, you could be adding as much as 9g of sugar per cup to your day[*].
If you like the taste of unflavored milk alternatives, you’ll be in a much better place sugar-wise.
Here’s how the macros change when the sweet flavor is removed:
Instead of 9g, you’re down to 1g of sugar. Big difference.
So to enjoy these alternative milks, stick to unflavored options and look specifically for these four since they have the fewest amount of carbs:
- Almond milk
- Pea protein
- Flax milk
- Hemp milk
The next item on our list can either be a keto gift for your boring kale salad or a sugary nightmare you later regret.
#11: Salad Dressings
When most people talk about unhealthy salad dressings, the focus is usually on how fattening or high calorie they can be.
But those two things aren’t what you need to worry about when you’re purchasing and using a store bought salad dressing on keto.
Hidden sugars are the huge problem here.
In the case of popular ones like French, Russian and Thousand Island dressing, these are all ketchup-based so the sugar count can be astronomical. Balsamic-based dressings and vinaigrettes can also headline a sugarfest.
This single-serve Newman’s Own French dressing packet adds 13g of sugar to your greens[*].
So even though you’re getting 15g of fat, that amount of sugar will negate all your hard work and it certainly won’t help you achieve ketosis.
A similar situation happens with the next food group on today’s list.
#12: Frozen Dinners and Entrees
I’ll admit, frozen food has come a long way.
But that doesn’t mean you’re any safer eating it these days.
Once again, marketers have wised up when it comes to understanding what consumers want.
For example, this Lean Cuisine Steak Portabella low carb frozen entree is clearly marketed towards low-carb dieters and possibly keto-ers[*].
But it’s not exactly low carb, and it’s definitely not keto-friendly.
While the label only shows 3g of sugar, chances are, some of them are tucked away in the total carb count of 16g, which also isn’t very low carb.
Yes, it may be lower in carbs than their other meals, but that doesn’t make it a good option for you (because it’s not).
Check out the amount of sugars (in red) and additives buried in the ingredient list[*]:
So when it comes to frozen foods, it’s not just about low carb. Pay attention to the hidden sugars and chemical additives too.
While frozen dinners may be more obvious on the Don’t Eat List, these next two seem to always trip people up.
#13: Flavored Kombucha
Kombucha, a fermented drink that can help restore the bacteria balance in your gut, is becoming uber popular in health circles.
And, as I talked about in this guide, since the SCOBY feeds off sugar, kombucha has the potential to be a keto-friendly drink.
But that comes with one major caveat: you buy the unflavored options or brew your own.
See, as with many flavored drinks, when these sweeteners are added to kombucha, the sugar levels skyrocket.
And while these added flavors and sugars may be in the form of real fruit, just like fruit smoothies, that doesn’t negate the amount of sugar hitting your system at a rapid rate.
Take this popular kombucha, for example:
An 8oz glass has 6g of sugar, which equals a teaspoon and a half once it’s converted[*].
Keep in mind, 6g may seem small and insignificant, but if you’re adding 6g here and 5g there and so forth, it eventually adds up.
And when it does, you’ll realize the power hidden sugars have over your ability to get into ketosis.
If you plan to enjoy kombucha on keto, do so using unflavored varieties only.
You can also learn more about this ancient fermented drink by checking out this guide.
The last food on today’s list is one many people assume is low in sugar — but that just isn’t the case (big surprise).
#14: Tonic Water
Tonic water is often confused with seltzer or soda water.
And while they both share clear, bubbly properties, one is loaded with sugar while the other doesn’t have any.
If the heading hasn’t made it clear, tonic water has more sugar in it than you think.
This generic version has 23g of sugar to be precise[*]:
Yet that same brand’s seltzer gives you 0g of sugar[*]:
So whether you’re drinking it on its own, or you prefer it as your tequila or gin mixer, it’s time to switch to seltzer water if ketosis is your goal.
Speaking of substitutions, we’ve finally made it to the good news: a list of alternative sweeteners safe to enjoy on keto.
As mentioned in this guide, there are 5 low carb substitutes that work well for anyone looking to replace sugar on keto.
- Monk fruit
To learn more about these in detail, be sure to check out that guide when you’re done reading this one.
Watch Out for Hidden Sugars and You May Just Reach Ketosis
You’re practically a hidden sugars detective by now — not only understanding, but hopefully even predicting where you may find lurking sugars before you make the mistake of eating them.
Sleuth out all the ingredients listed on your nutrition labels and you’ll be able to drastically cut down your intake of sugar fast.
Do this, and keep your carbs within a keto-friendly range, and ketosis won’t be as far out of reach as it may feel.
For additional tips on getting into ketosis quickly, check out this guide.