Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How to read a food label

The Nutrition Facts label lists the total amount of carbohydrates per serving, including carbs from fiber, sugar, and sugar alcohols. (If you're counting carbs in your diet, be aware that 15 grams of carbohydrates count as one serving.)

The information on the left side of the label provides total amounts of different nutrients per serving. To make wise food choices, check the total amounts for:

  • calorie
  • total fat
  • sodium
  • total carbohydrate
  • fiber
  • sugar alcohol
  • list of ingredients

Using the information found in total amounts

Total amounts are shown in grams, abbreviated as g, or in milligrams, shown as mg. A gram is a very small amount and a milligram is one-thousandth of that. For example, a nickel weighs about 5 grams. So does a teaspoonful of margarine. Use the label to compare labels of similar foods. For example, choose the product with a smaller amount of saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium and try to select foods with more fiber.


If you are trying to lose or maintain your weight, the number of calories you eat counts. To lose weight you need to eat fewer calories than your body burns. You can use the labels to compare similar products and determine which contains fewer calories. To find out how many calories you need each day, talk with your dietitian or certified diabetes educator.

Total Fat

Total fat tells you how much fat is in a food per serving. It includes fats that are good for you such as mono and polyunsaturated fats, and fats that are not so good such as saturated and trans fats. Mono and polyunsaturated fats can help to lower your blood cholesterol and protect your heart. Saturated and trans fat can raise your blood cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. The cholesterol in food may also increase your blood cholesterol.

Fat is calorie-dense. Per gram, it has more than twice the calories of carbohydrate or protein. Although some types of fats, such as mono and polyunsaturated fats provide your body with healthy fats, it is still important to pay attention to the overall number of calories that you consume to maintain a healthy weight.


Sodium does not affect blood glucose levels. However, many people eat much more sodium than they need. Table salt is very high in sodium. You might hear people use "sodium" in lieu of "table salt," or vice versa.

With many foods, you can taste how salty they are, such as pickles or bacon. But there is also hidden salt in many foods, like cheeses, salad dressings, canned soups and other packaged foods. Reading labels can help you compare the sodium in different foods. You can also try using herbs and spices in your cooking instead of adding salt. Adults should aim for less than 2300 mg per day. If you have high blood pressure, it may be helpful to eat less.

Total Carbohydrate

If you are carbohydrate counting, the food label can provide you with the information you need for meal planning. Look at the grams of total carbohydrate, rather than the grams of sugar. Total carbohydrate on the label includes sugar, complex carbohydrate, and fiber. If you look only at the sugar number, you may end up excluding nutritious foods such as fruits and milks thinking they are too high in sugar. You might also overeat foods such as cereals and grains that have no natural or added sugar, but do contain a lot of carbohydrate.

The grams of sugar and fiber are counted as part of the grams of total carbohydrate. If a food has 5 grams or more fiber in a serving, subtract half the fiber grams from the total grams of carbohydrate for a more accurate estimate of the carbohydrate content.


Fiber is part of plant foods that is not digested – or for some types, only partially digested. Dried beans such as kidney or pinto beans, fruits, vegetables and grains are all good sources of fiber. The recommendation is to eat 25-30 grams of fiber per day. People with diabetes need the same amount of fiber as everyone else for good health.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols (also known as polyols) include sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol, and have fewer calories than sugars and starches. Use of sugar alcohols in a product does not necessarily mean the product is low in carbohydrate or calories. And, just because a package says "sugar-free" on the outside, that does not mean that it is calorie or carbohydrate-free. Always remember to check the label for the grams of carbohydrate and calories.

List of Ingredients

Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, meaning the first ingredient makes up the largest proportion of the food. Check the ingredient list to spot things you'd like to avoid, such as coconut oil or palm oil, which are high in saturated fat. Also try to avoid hydrogenated oils that are high in trans fat. They are not listed by total amount on the label, but you can choose foods that don't list hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list.

The ingredient list is also a good place to look for heart-healthy ingredients such as soy; monounsaturated fats such as olive, canola or peanut oils; or whole grains, like whole wheat flour and oats.

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