Understanding Food Labels
Food labels provide useful and important nutritional information that is crucial for anyone wanting to adhere to a healthy regimen. Learning to read the food labels on packaged food products allows you to make informed food choices and to limit yourself to appropriate portion sizes. The information can also be used to make nutrition comparisons between similar products. For those with diabetes this is especially important, as it enables them to fit various products into their individualized nutrition plan to help control blood glucose, cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight.
What's in a food label?
List of Ingredients:
Ingredients are listed on food labels in descending order according to weight. That means that the first ingredients listed are present in the highest amount.
It was once thought that products containing sugar, even in minute amounts, were totally off limits for people with diabetes. However, the American Diabetes Association opposes totally restricting sugar for people with diabetes -- provided they consume it in the context of a healthy food choice. Therefore, foods with sugar listed as a lower ingredient on the label can be included in one's meal plan, as long as they are counted in the appropriate food group.
Sugar appears in manufactured food products under different names. We call these hidden sugars, since the average consumer is not aware of their importance and their influence on the total sugar consumed per individual portion. Believe it or not, there are a total of twenty-three different ingredients that have the same or similar affects as sugar; some work faster than others, but all have the same nutrition value as sugar.
Hidden sugars include: honey, corn syrup derived from maize (corn starch), high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, dextrose (derived from sucrose), fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, laevulose, beet sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, isomalt, maltodextrin, maple sugar, maple syrup, and sorghum.
It is important to note that these various sugars have different glycemic responses. For example, fructose has a low glycemic index, whereas high-fructose corn syrup, which is a mixture of 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose, has a higher glycemic response, similar to that of sucrose (table sugar).
Nutrition Facts Panel:
The Nutrition Facts panel, usually found on the sides or back of the package, provides nutrition information per serving. The information usually includes levels of energy (calories), protein, total fat, saturated fat, trans-fat, carbohydrates, sugars, fiber, and sodium. Make comparisons between products to make healthier food choices.
Servings per Package and Serving Size:
One of the most common factors that sabotage good control is lack of awareness of serving size and servings per package. In order not to exceed optimum nutrient intake, we must be aware of the serving size. This mistake is most commonly made with small items, since it is assumed that the package or can contains a single portion, when in fact it very often contains one and a half or even two portions.
The recommended daily intake of fiber is 25 to 30 grams per day. Choose food products with the highest levels of fiber. A high-fiber product is one that provides 5 or more grams per serving and is low in fat (otherwise the amount of fat must be displayed next to the high-fiber statement). “MoreĀ or “added fiberĀ contains at least 2.5 more grams of fiber per serving than the original food. A product that is a good source of fiber contains 2.5 to 4.9 grams per serving. For example, cereal A contains 20 grams of fiber per 100 grams, and therefore provides 6 grams of fiber per 30-gram serving. This is considered a high-fiber cereal.
Make sure you get both soluble and insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber helps keep you regular, and soluble fiber slows down digestion and insulin production.
It is important to try and avoid products that have more than 1-3 grams of saturated fatty acids per serving. Look for products made with olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and sesame oil. Avoid those made with hydrogenated oils and trans-fatty acids.
Calories from Fat:
Since high intake of saturated fat and cholesterol is linked to increased risk of heart disease, choose products that provide less than 30 percent of total calories from fat, less than 10 percent from saturated fat, and less than 20 mg. of cholesterol per serving. To calculate the percentage of calories from fat, multiply the grams of fat per 100 grams of product by 9, and then divide the result by the total calories per 100 grams.
To illustrate the above, let's compare the percentage of calories from fat between 1 percent fat milk and 3 percent fat milk. One hundred grams of 1 percent milk contain 42 calories and 0.97 grams of fat. The calories that fat contribute to the total calories can be calculated by multiplying 0.97 by 9, which equals 8.73 Kcal. Divide 8.73 by 42 (total calories per 100 grams) and you get .21, meaning 21 percent of the calories come from fat. On the other hand, 3 percent milk contains 3.22 grams of fat and 60 calories per 100 grams. Multiply 3.22 by 9, and you get 29. The percentage of calories from fat is 29 divided by 60, which is .48, or 48 percent. As you can see, there is a tremendous difference in calories from fat between 1 percent fat milk and 3 percent fat milk.
Choose food products with lower calories. Energy content of food (i.e. calories) is very important because of its relationship to obesity. Those with diabetes are at increased risk. Products that contain less than 40 calories per serving are generally considered to be low in calories. Alternatively, a low-calorie product contains one-third the calories of the original food.
Choose foods that are lower in salt (sodium). A product is considered to be low in sodium when it has less than 140 mg. of sodium per serving. “No-salt or “salt-free products have less than 5 mg. of sodium per serving. Sodium is associated with water retention, which could cause unexplained and unwanted weight gain. This can also cause a rise in blood pressure and additional pressure on the heart.
No matter what regimen one chooses, it is important to be aware of the carb content of foods. The labels will often list them separately from sugars, but they are all carbs. People with diabetes, or even glucose tolerance impairment, more popularly known as insulin resistance (which can result in elevated and/or high blood sugar levels and eventually diabetes) should check the carbohydrate content of products. Those on a low-carb regimen would want to try to choose products with 10 grams of carbs per serving or less. Knowing the carbohydrate content per serving will enable those with diabetes to include various products in their meal plan. It is important to remember that each 15 grams of carbohydrates is equivalent to one slice of bread, or one small-medium fruit exchange (using the old exchange system).
Health claims are optional and not always provided. When they are, they usually highlight one nutrient or a specific aspect of the food that may be of interest to consumers. To assess the overall value of a food, consumers need to be directed to read the Nutrition Facts panel and the list of ingredients, which provide more specific and relevant information about the product.
A good habit to start is to always check the nutrition facts and ingredients of a product to see if they back up its claims. Understanding food labels can help you make wise choices and avoid many of these marketing traps.
Copyright Jewish Diabetes Association. Last updated June 2017©