Food Labels 101

Making sense of the fine print can make all the difference in your diabetes health.

Food LabelsArm yourself with a few nutrition facts (and your reading glasses) before heading to the supermarket to face that ocean of food labels.

In a clear example of science confirming what we know, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study published last year concluded: "A majority of consumers do not use or understand nutrition information available to them on food packages." Why not? It's confusing! And if deciphering the ingredients and nutrition facts on food labels is a challenge for the average shopper, it can be downright frustrating when you're newly diagnosed with diabetes.

The amount of diet and nutrition information a person receives after a diagnosis of diabetes varies enormously. Depending on where you're diagnosed, you might receive a complete package with specific dietary instructions, or you may walk out the door with nothing more than a prescription and advice to lose weight.

Either way, your first step should be to talk to a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator, who can help you map out an eating plan based on your health issues and your lifestyle. Still, when you get to the grocery store, you're on your own. Here are the three most important things to know:

1. Serving sizes are not uniform, nor are they always realistic. At the top of the Nutrition Facts panel, check the serving size and decide if that's how much you would typically consume in a sitting. Sometimes, this is easy –– it may say 4 crackers or 5 pieces. Other times, it requires measuring cups or a scale. If you find that you typically eat two "servings" of something, double the calories, fat and carbohydrates, too.

2. Look at the total number of carbohydrates per serving and deduct the number of grams of fiber, if it's over 5. For example, if a food has 23 grams of carbs in a serving and 6 grams of fiber, consider the "countable" carbs to be 17. Guidelines say you should consume at least 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day (the average American gets about half that). Not only does fiber not raise blood glucose, it helps slow the absorption of other carbs.

3. Under "Total Fat," look at trans fat. If you don't eat a high-carbohydrate diet, some evidence suggests that you do not need to watch saturated fat intake. The acceptable limit for trans fat –– which is found in crackers, baked goods, margarines and other common foods –– is 0, so you might need to watch out for trans fat, rather than saturated fat.

Daily Values
Next, you'll notice the "% Daily Value" (or % DV) on the Nutrition Facts panel. This shows you how much a serving of that food provides of your daily nutrient requirements or limits. These percentages, however, are based on a 2,000-calorie diet so you may need to adjust those numbers. A 30-year-old woman who is 5'4", weighs 150 pounds and rarely exercises requires 1,963 calories every day to maintain her weight. Talk to your certified diabetes educator, registered dietitian, or healthcare provider about daily calorie goals.

The Fine Print
The ingredients list is, in many ways, your best source of information. Contents are listed in descending order by weight, so the first two ingredients are usually the most important. If the first ingredient is sugar (especially high fructose corn syrup) or enriched wheat flour (a.ka., white flour), consider putting the package back on the shelf. Look for the word whole in front of grains (whole wheat, whole oats, etc.), and for heart-healthy oils such as olive, canola, and peanut oils.

The Sweet Stuff
You cannot rely on the Nutrition Facts panel to help you limit your intake of added sugars. The grams of sugar listed include naturally occurring sugars, such as those in milk products, fruits, and vegetables. So check the ingredients list. All of the following are different terms for added sugar: brown sugar, molasses, beet sugar, honey, cane juice, turbinado, maple syrup, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, maltose, barley malt, and fruit juice concentrate. Sugar alcohols, such as maltitol, xylitol, and sorbitol can also have an impact on blood glucose levels. Again, check the ingredients and total carbohydrate count.

Tricky Label Terms
Low fat, reduced sugar, low carb –– what does it all really mean? If a product label says "low fat," it has 3 grams or less per serving. If it says sugar or fat "free," it means it contains less than .5 gram per serving. If it's "reduced" (fat, sugar, or sodium), it contains at least 25 percent less per serving than the regular version of that food.

Keep in mind, of course, that the best food choices don't have labels –– all those fresh, whole foods packaged by Mother Nature.

Reviewed by Susan Weiner, R.D., M.S., C.D.E., C.D.N. 3/08


Last Modified Date: June 11, 2014

All content on is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.

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