Unraveling The Sugar Mystery


By Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD

Sugar is a baffling topic for many parents. You know that your young athletes need extra energy for their sport, but you may not know where sugar hides in food and how much sugar is too much. The A-Game Sports Nutritionist is here to unravel the sugar mystery so you can have healthy, happy athletes.

There are two different types of sugar: “natural sugar” and “added sugar”. Natural sugar is naturally found in foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains. Added sugar refers to sugar that is added to food for taste. Unfortunately, the food label does not specify if a sugar is natural or added, so one has to be a bit of a sugar detective. To find added sugar, inspect the ingredient list. Look for sugar’s aliases, such as high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, honey, raw sugar, malt syrup, rice syrup, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, brown sugar, evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, cane sugar, crystalline fructose, beet sugar, coconut sugar and caramel. If you see these ingredients, you know that sugar has been added to the food.

As you might expect, added sugar is found in many processed foods, like cookies, candy, ice cream and sodas. It’s also in many packaged foods that kids like to eat before a practice or game. Whereas natural sugar foods provide long lasting energy during exercise, these processed foods provide short bursts of energy followed by a crash. For example, eating sugary foods before a basketball game will cause an inevitable energy crash in the 2nd or 3rd quarter. And, any A-Game Sports coach will tell you that basketball games are won by the team whose players still have their legs in the 4th quarter. That’s why it’s extremely important to recognize foods with added sugar and make healthier natural sugar swaps.

Where does sugar hide?

Cereals: Have you ever looked at the nutrition label of Raisin Bran? A 1-cup serving contains 18 grams or 4.5 teaspoons of sugar, and most kids probably eat double that before a big game! Cereal is a huge staple among kids, and, there are much less sugary but tasty brands. Barbara’s Puffins has only 5 grams of sugar (or 1 teaspoon) in ¾ cup. Kix or Cheerios are even better options with only 1 gram of sugar in ¾ cup.

Granola and granola bars: Most parents think that granola bars are healthy snacks for their kids, but they often contain tons of honey and syrup. Nature Valley Granola bars have 11 grams or 3 teaspoons of added sugar per pack. As a healthier alternative, make your own trail mix by mixing together a ¼ cup of low-salt nuts, raisins, and ¼ cup of pretzels. This will satisfy your child’s pre-game hunger without weighing them down.

Fruit snacks: Although they are called “fruit” snacks, these gummies have almost no trace of fruit in them. A tiny bag of Welch’s fruit snacks contains 11 grams or 3 teaspoons of sugar. The healthier alternative is (obviously) fresh fruit. Apples and oranges are great fruits to send with your kids to school or summer camp. They are high in nutrients and they also have a high water content, which is great for hydration!

Yogurt: Yogurt is a great source of pre-workout fuel because it contains both healthy carbs (in lactose) and protein. However, “fruited” yogurt is packed with added sugar. A 5- ounce container of fruited yogurt contains ~14 grams or 3.5 teaspoons of added sugar. A better alternative is plain Greek yogurt with chopped bananas and raisins.

Soda/Fruit juice: It’s no secret that soda is packed with sugar, but did you know that fruit juice is very similar? A small Capri Sun has 20 grams or 5 teaspoons of added sugar! Fill your child’s water bottle with water! Not only will it cut out unnecessary sugar, but it will keep them hydrated throughout the day.

You may be thinking, “Doesn’t my kid need extra calories because of all the running around?” Yes, they do, but they don’t need extra sugar. Providing extra calories from foods that contain natural sugar also provides many other beneficial nutrients to the diet, such as fiber, protein, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, calcium, Vitamin A, potassium, and iron. These nutrients are extremely important for your child’s growth and development and will only enhance their endurance and stamina in their sport. In contrast, eating a diet high in added sugar has been linked to frequent cavities, overweight and obesity and the development of serious diseases, such as Diabetes. When choosing a food with sugar, ask yourself if it came from mother nature. If the answer is yes, you can bet it’s the right choice!

Meet the A-Game Nutritionist! Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian, specializing in sports nutrition and adolescent nutrition education. She’s excited to spread the message of healthy eating and “food as fuel” at A-Game Sports. To find out more about our Nutritionist or to schedule an appointment for you or your child, visit our nutrition counseling page.