Is Added Sugar Bad for Backpackers?

By Sarah Coupal & Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD • Updated November 16, 2022

This post may contain affiliate links.

Sugar is often demonized as being bad for our health, but is it really that bad for backpackers? While added sugar certainly has its drawbacks, it can also be a valuable source of energy for backpackers, especially when they are exerting themselves for long periods of time. In this article, we'll take a look at the pros and cons of added sugar for backpackers, and see if it's really as bad as it's made out to be. #addedsugar #besthikingsnacks #bestbackpackingfood #backcountryfoodie

As a backpacker, you might be health-conscious or wondering how you can improve your performance on the trail. The added sugar found in backpacking meals and snacks might raise concern. Is added sugar bad for backpackers? That’s a great question because there is a lot of conflicting information out there about the health effects of eating sugar. Here’s our take on added sugar in backpacking diets.

What are Added Sugars?

Added sugars are different from natural sugars because they are added either during the processing or preparation of foods. According to the American Diabetes Association, naturally occurring sugar found in fruit and dairy are not included in this category. However, honey, agave, and table sugar are because they are typically added to other foods.1

  • Glucose
  • Fructose
  • Galactose
  • Sucrose
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Raw sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Cane (table) sugar
  • Fruit nectars
  • Corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Malt syrup
Sugar is often demonized as being bad for our health, but is it really that bad for backpackers? While added sugar certainly has its drawbacks, it can also be a valuable source of energy for backpackers, especially when they are exerting themselves for long periods of time. In this article, we'll take a look at the pros and cons of added sugar for backpackers, and see if it's really as bad as it's made out to be. #addedsugar #besthikingsnacks #bestbackpackingfood #backcountryfoodie

Why Added Sugar Can Be Bad for Your Health

Researchers have not confirmed that eating sugar directly causes chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, but there is an association because eating too much can cause weight gain.2 In fact, eating too many calories in any form may cause you to gain weight.

Additionally, there are concerns that eating too much sugar can cause insulin resistance, leading to diabetes regardless of weight gain. But these studies were done on the general population, not on athletes. Furthermore, research has shown that exercise improves insulin sensitivity, increasing glucose tolerance.3

When you are backpacking, you’re typically physically active for many hours, several days in a row. This makes weight gain unlikely – backpackers often need all the calories they can get!

gaiagps

Can added sugar be helpful for backpackers?

Yes, absolutely!

Glucose (simple sugar) is an essential fuel source for our brain, muscles, and red blood cells. Any unused glucose can be stored as glycogen, a fuel source you can tap into when you’re running low on energy.

Hike Stronger Longer

Endurance athletes regularly consume sugary foods (sports drinks, energy gels, chews) while training and competing, and guess what?!? Backpacking is an endurance sport!

Foods with sugar and carbohydrates in any form have been shown to improve endurance sports performance. Foods that are mostly simple sugar can become more helpful as the intensity of your hike increases or you are very hungry because they provide a quick boost of energy.

Mood Booster

Simple sugars, like glucose, are also known to trigger the creation of serotonin, a mood-lifting hormone. A sweet treat can give you a much-needed pep in your step and a mood boost when the going gets tough on the trail.

However, if you rely heavily on added sugars to keep your energy level up, it might indicate that you need to take a closer look at your diet. You might be consuming inadequate calories and/or carbohydrates for fuel.

Situations where foods with added sugar could be a good choice:

  • If you are actively hitting the wall and need to bring up your blood sugar level
  • When the day feels like it will never end, you’re tired and grumpy
  • Before a difficult section of the trail, and you haven’t eaten for a few hours
  • You put off eating lunch until you get to the top of the mountain, but it’s well past lunchtime

Which Hiking Snack Foods Have Added Sugar?

Quick Energy Snacks

  • Gatorade
  • Honey Stinger Energy Chews
  • Licorice
  • Welch’s fruit snacks
  • Clif Blocs
  • Sour Patch Kids
  • Gummy bears
  • Honey packets or sticks
  • Jelly beans

Sustained Energy Snacks

Sugar is often demonized as being bad for our health, but is it really that bad for backpackers? While added sugar certainly has its drawbacks, it can also be a valuable source of energy for backpackers, especially when they are exerting themselves for long periods of time. In this article, we'll take a look at the pros and cons of added sugar for backpackers, and see if it's really as bad as it's made out to be. #addedsugar #besthikingsnacks #bestbackpackingfood #backcountryfoodie

Whereas backpacking snacks that are mostly simple sugars provide a quick burst of energy, there are other snacks that contain added sugar but will be a source of more sustained energy because they contain other sources of carbohydrates, as well as protein. Sweet foods, like meal replacement shakes and desserts, can also be used to provide additional nutrition to supplement lower-calorie meals.

Is there another option for quick energy snacks without added sugar?

If you are concerned about your sugar intake, dried fruit will give you a similar boost of energy. But the fiber in fruit slows digestion, slightly delaying your body’s response. In our blog post Best Backpacking Foods for Energy, we discuss the relationship between different foods and energy.


Added Sugar as Part of a Healthy Backpacking Diet

Experts recommend limiting the amount of added sugar you eat to 5-10% of your total daily calories.2,4

When backpacking, your calorie requirements will likely be higher than they are when you’re at home. This means you can eat more sugar than you might typically consider part of a healthy diet at home and still be within the recommended range.

Added sugar recommendations for some common daily calorie goals for backpackers:
Daily CaloriesCalories from added sugar (5-10% of total calories)Added Sugar
2000 calories100-200 calories25-50 g
3000 calories150-300 calories37.5-75 g
5000 calories250-500 calories62.5-125 g

Wondering what 100 calories (25 grams) of sugar looks like?

  • 4-5 teaspoons of honey
  • 6 teaspoons of cane sugar

Should I Use Sugar Substitutes for Backpacking Meals?

Sugar is often demonized as being bad for our health, but is it really that bad for backpackers? While added sugar certainly has its drawbacks, it can also be a valuable source of energy for backpackers, especially when they are exerting themselves for long periods of time. In this article, we'll take a look at the pros and cons of added sugar for backpackers, and see if it's really as bad as it's made out to be. #addedsugar #besthikingsnacks #bestbackpackingfood #backcountryfoodie

Sugar substitutes, also known as artificial sweeteners, include non-nutritive sweeteners and sugar alcohols. They usually have fewer to no calories and are many times sweeter than granulated sugar. In recipes, they will not be a one-to-one substitution. A quick Google search will present you with many helpful charts with substitution equivalents. Sugar substitutes will not give you the same energy boost as added sugars.

Sugar substitutes undergo a rigorous approval process before they can be sold to the general public in the United States. The US Food and Drug Association (FDA) considers them safe to eat as long as you are not eating excessive amounts on a daily basis.5 So it is really a matter of personal preference if you choose to use them in your backpacking meals.

Consuming more than 15 grams per day of sugar alcohol may cause gastrointestinal distress.

Here’s an example of how added sugar can be part of a healthy backpacking diet

Peanut Butter Protein Shake

Backcountry Foodie Recipe
If you're a fan of our Peanut Butter Mocha Smoothie, you're going to love this decaffeniated version. This meal replacement was used time and time again during my Colorado Trail thru-hike.
Rate This Recipe
5 from 7 votes
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NUTRITION (per serving)

cal/oz 123
cal/gram 4.4
Calories 625 kcal
PROTEIN 33 g
CARBS 71 g
Fiber 13 g
Added Sugar 13 g
Fat 27 g
Sodium 474 mg
Home Prep Time 2 mins
Field Prep Time 15 mins
WT/SERVING 5.1 oz (142 g)
MEAL PREPDehydrator Not Required, No-Cook
Diet TYPESBariatric, Gluten-Free, Low-Sugar, Vegan, Vegetarian
Servings1

INGREDIENTS
 
 

OPTIONAL

INSTRUCTIONS (per serving)

HOME

  • Put oats in a coffee/spice grinder and blend until a fine powder forms.
  • Put oat powder and remaining ingredients in a bag or container to be used in the backcountry.

FIELD

  • Add 8 oz (240 mL) cold water to the bag or container.
  • Stir or shake vigorously to mix well and enjoy! See meal prep tip below.
  • For a thicker shake, let stand 5-10 minutes allowing the chia seeds to absorb water.

NOTES

MEAL PREP TIP

  • Meal replacement drinks often mix better when prepared in a hard-sided container.

 

NUTRITION

  • Total sugar (per serving): 40 g, including 13 g of added sugar
  • For a no-added-sugar recipe, replace brown sugar with a brown sugar substitute.
  • To reduce calories by 160, replace whole milk powder with non-fat milk powder.
  • This recipe may be used as a meal replacement when consumed entirely.
     

MY NOTES

Did you make this recipe? We’d love to see it!Share photos from your kitchen or the backcountry below.

Ready to see more backpacking recipes like this one?

Backcountry Foodie is your go-to resource for more than 200 backpacking dietitian-created recipes and a one-of-a-kind automated meal planning tool. The meal planner even creates itemized shopping lists for you! Meal prep has never been easier.

Backcountry Foodie Recipe Grid and Meal Planner

Check out this video to see where all the magic happens.


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ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Sarah Coupal is a Dietetic Intern at Illinois State University mentored by Aaron. She holds a BS in Nutritional Sciences from Cornell University and spent two summers as the Trails Food Coordinator for the Adirondack Mountain Club. She enjoys hiking/backpacking, canoeing, cross-country skiing, and running in her free time.

Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD, is a registered dietitian and ultralight long-distance backpacker with over 20 years of nutrition and backpacking experience. She’s also the founder and owner of Backcountry Foodie, an online ultralight recipes and meal planning platform for backpackers. She also enjoys teaching hikers about backpacking nutrition via virtual masterclasses, YouTube videos, and podcast episodes. You can follow Aaron’s adventures in the kitchen and the backcountry via Instagram and Facebook.

References:
  1. American Diabetes Association. Get to Know Carbs. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://diabetes.org/healthy-living/recipes-nutrition/understanding-carbs/get-to-know-carbs
  2. Johnson RK, Appel LJ, Brands M, et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2009;120(11):1011-1020. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.192627
  3. Hawley JA. Exercise as a therapeutic intervention for the prevention and treatment of insulin resistance. Diabetes Metab Res Rev. 2004;20(5):383-393. doi:10.1002/dmrr.505
  4. World Health Organization. Guideline: Sugars Intake for Adults and Children.; 2015. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.who.int/publications-detail-redirect/9789241549028
  5. High-Intensity Sweeteners. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Published May 19, 2014. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/high-intensity-sweeteners
  6. Center for Disease Control. Know Your Limit for Added Sugar. Accessed November 16, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/healthy_eating/sugar.html
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