5 Food Swaps To Save You 1/4 Cup of Straight Sugar

As Mary Poppins once said, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” And if that song had more verses, I think they may have evolved something like this … “And the more spoonfuls of sugar you eat, the more medicine you’ll have to take.” It’s a vicious cycle, those spoonfuls of sugar and the need for health interventions … like medicine, lost days at work, the onset of chronic diseases, surgeries, and shortened lifespan. Not quite the jolly tune we started with, is it? 

The hard truth is that a diet with too much added sugars puts you at risk of a whole host of unwanted things, including heart disease, cognitive problems, diabetes, inflammation, skin aging, tooth decay, weight gain, and even early death.

What makes it so hard to avoid sugar is that a whopping 3 out of every 4 food and beverage products you can buy contain added sugar or alternative sweeteners (or both). Our demand for ever sweeter foods—coupled with food manufacturers making them for us—has resulted in a nearly 30% increase in added sugar consumption by American adults in the last three decades.

But with some light lifting (ie: flipping over those products to examine the Nutrition Facts panels) you can often make better-for-you food swaps of comparable items that will save you some major sugar. The following 5 swaps (each one a trade-out for a similar item) would cut out 47 grams, the equivalent of 12 teaspoons (... or 4 tablespoons ... or ¼ cup of straight sugar, depending on how you like to measure).

5 Pantry Swaps That Easily Cut Out 12 Tablespoons of Sugar

Swap Out: Sparkling Juice
Swap In: Sparkling Water

If you love a carbonated beverage, but don’t love what a “healthier” option like sparkling juice could add to your waistline, consider this swap. A sparkling juice beverage that contains 70% or more fruit juice mixed with 30% sparkling water still packs a lot of sugar into a quickly consumed drink. Swap the ratio and seek out a bevy that is mostly sparkling water with just a touch of real fruit juice for flavor. 

This swap will save you more than 20 grams of total sugar per can.


Swap Out: Canned Fruit packed in Heavy Syrup
Swap In: Canned Fruit packed in Fruit Juice

Buying canned fruit is a nice way to keep some shelf-stable, budget-friendly, long-lasting fruit on hand, which can help round out meals and snacks with fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. But it can be confusing to know what your best option is when staring at the wall of colorful cans. To cut out unnecessary added sugar (hello, fruit is naturally sweet), always choose canned fruit that has been packed in 100% juice (yes, even if that is juice from concentrate) instead of fruit that has been packed in heavy or light syrup. 

This swap eliminates 9 grams of sugar per ½ cup.


Swap Out: Pasta Sauce with Added Sugar
Swap In: Pasta Sauce with No Added Sugar

Most chefs will tell you that tomato sauce benefits from the addition of a pinch of sugar to help cut the acidity in the tomatoes, which is why added sugars show up in so many commercial brands of pasta sauce. This type of sugar (added) is the worst culprit because it contributes sweetness without other nutritive benefits. But pasta sauce doesn’t need to have added sugar when it’s made with 10 organic vegetables that provide naturally sweet flavor plus the nutritive benefits of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Otamot pasta sauce never contains added sugar. The flavor in Otamot is so perfectly balanced from the carefully chosen blend of veggies and extra-virgin olive oil, that everyone—from trained chefs to home cooks—prefers it. 

This swap nixes 6 grams of added sugar per 1 cup.


Swap Out: Pancake & Waffle Mix with Added Sugar
Swap In: Pancake & Waffle Mix with No Added Sugar

When you drizzle delicious maple syrup and fresh berries over a hot pancake or waffle, that provides all the sugar most people can afford in an indulgent comfort breakfast. So there’s really no need for the pancake and waffle mix itself to contain added sugar. Alas, many commercial brands do—and quite a bit of it. When you pick a cleaner brand, like Simple Mills, you’re not only dropping the added sugars, but you’re getting a nutrient boost from a simple list of better ingredients, such as nut and seed flours, flax meal, and cinnamon.  

This swap nixes 7 grams of added sugar per 1/3 cup of dry mix.


Swap Out: High-Sugar Cereal
Swap In: Lower Sugar Cereal

Comparing cereals isn’t always an apples-to-apples game. There are many options out there, including those that are extremely (and unapologetically) high in added sugars and other unwanted additives, such as artificial colors, flavorings, highly processed grains and syrups. And then there are your plain-Jane flakes and cardboard-tasting bowl fillers. But what about when you DO compare cereals on an apples-to-apples basis? With some digging, you’ll almost always find a lower-sugar alternative to your favorite kind. Take this example for honey-flavored Os. This simple swap would save you 5 grams (that's nearly 2 teaspoons) of sugar for every 1 cup you replace. Day after day and bowl after bowl, that makes a big difference in your sugar intake. 

This swap cuts out 5 grams of sugar per 1 cup of cereal.


If you were to make these 5 easy, similar pantry swaps, you would save ¼ cup of straight sugar. Now just think about how that adds up day after day, and with other pantry swaps you can make. By making some conscious replacements, not only are you cutting back on added sugar, but you’re setting up yourself and your family for less spoonfuls of medicine down the road. 

See also: 4 Steps to Ditch Added Sugars

Jessie Shafer is a registered dietitian-nutritionist, team member at
The Real Food Dietitians, former magazine editor, and busy mom of two who loves to find lower-sugar swaps to fill her pantry with better options. 

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