Desserts and soft drinks are typically the first things we eliminate when deciding to cut sugar from our diets. But even if you successfully avoid these sweets, chances are you will still be eating more sugar than you realize. In fact, a survey conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina found added sugar in nearly 70 percent of the packaged food sold in supermarkets.

Desserts and soft drinks are typically the first things we eliminate when deciding to cut sugar from our diets. But even if you successfully avoid these sweets, chances are you will still be eating more sugar than you realize. In fact, a survey conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina found added sugar in nearly 70 percent of the packaged food sold in supermarkets.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American consumes about 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day. That amounts to nearly double the American Heart Association recommended limit of 9 teaspoons for men and triple the 6-teaspoon limit for women. The AHA recommendations for children vary depending on their age and calorie needs, but range between 3-6 teaspoons of sugar per day. There are two types of sugar in your diet:

1. Naturally occurring sugar that comes from food such as fruits, whole grains, dairy and starchy vegetables like corn or sweet potatoes. Consuming foods with natural sugars is not linked to negative health effects because they contain beneficial nutrients plus fiber and are seldom overeaten.

2. Added sugars are various sweeteners added during processing or preparation of food products, such as in processed foods or the honey added to your tea. Our body does not need or benefit from any of these added sugars and they provide little nutritional value except for calories.

The benefit of cutting added sugar in your diet isn’t just about cutting calories to lose a few pounds. Some studies have shown that the more sugar you eat, the faster you age. Other health problems associated with a diet high in added sugar include an increased risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease, even in people who are not overweight. Too much added sugar can damage your liver, similar to the way alcohol can, causing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. If your belly is bigger than your hips, sugar might be to blame. When the liver detects more sugar than our bodies can use, it breaks it down and changes it to fat globules that are deposited around your internal organs and midsection.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all ingredients to be listed on food labels, added sugar comes in many different forms, under dozens of different names and unless you know what you are looking for, you may not realize how much sugar is in the food. Currently, labels list total sugar content but do not distinguish added sugar from the more healthful natural sugars. New food label regulations are in the works that will make that distinction soon, but until then, take a look at the ways manufacturers cleverly disguise the sugar in their products.

1. Calling sugar by a different name to confuse you. Whether it is barley malt, cane juice crystals, malt powder, fruit juice concentrate, agave, maltodextrin or dozens of other names, it is still added sugar. All of them have the same calories and no beneficial nutrients.

2. Using a combination of sugars in a single product. Ingredients must be listed by weight, so in order to put sugar further down the list manufacturers commonly use smaller amounts of three, four or even more sugars. This makes it look like the product doesn’t have so much sugar when you look at the ingredient list.

3. Adding sugar to foods you don’t consider sweet. Take a look at the labels of savory foods such as crackers, nut butter, sauces, nondairy milk, bread, salad dressing, tomato products and even flavored bottled water. You might be surprised to see added sugars listed in the ingredients.

4. Using alternative sweeteners. The label may claim no refined sugar to give the appearance of a more healthful product. But coconut sugar, honey, or sweeteners by any other name are still added sugar and do not have any benefit over regular white sugar.

5. Adding a health claim to the label. Foods that claim to be “natural,” “low-fat” or “healthy” may be low in fat or even calories but that doesn’t mean they aren’t loaded with sugar.

6. Reducing portion sizes. Pay attention to the portion size on the label. This is set by the manufacturer so sometimes they reduce the portion size to make the product look a little healthier. If you eat a bigger portion than listed, you will be getting more calories and sugar than you intend.

How can you reduce the sugar in your diet? Here are some tips to get you started:

Eliminate the obvious: soda, sweets, added sugar, honey, etc. But also eliminate artificial sweeteners. Although they don’t add calories, they do tend to make you crave sweets.

Make breakfast sugar free. Common breakfast foods like cereals, yogurts, pancakes, muffins, or granola bars are all full of added sugars. Try eggs, whole grain toast with some nut butter, and fruit, instead.

Choose single-ingredient whole foods rather than packaged foods such as plain nuts or popcorn instead of chips or whole fruit instead of juice. Read labels and choose foods that have just a few simple ingredients. The healthiest foods usually require no label at all. Eat fruit when you have a sweet craving or as dessert.

Read those labels and become familiar with the many names for sugar. If you can stick to a daily diet that is void of added sugar, then the occasional treat or dessert is not a big deal. But it should be by your choice and not because you didn’t know the sugar was there.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.