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Dear Diabetes: Are “Free Foods” Really Free?

A discussion of “free foods” for people living with diabetes

Dear Diabetes: Are “Free Foods” Really Free?

Who doesn’t love something free? Sadly, free often comes with a catch. And so it does when referring to diabetes “free foods,” such as ketchup, mustard and barbeque sauce. As a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE*), I often hear my clients use this term for foods with less than 20 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrate per serving. In theory, these few carbohydrates and calories won’t affect blood sugar. Unfortunately, I’ve seen some of my clients living with diabetes buy into the “free” concept without paying enough attention to the real cost. In my experience, there are both advantages and pitfalls to using diabetes free foods. (Remember to talk to your diabetes care team before making any changes to your meal plan.)


Many free foods have a portion limit. The ever-popular condiment ketchup contains just 4.5 grams of carbohydrate and 19 calories per tablespoon. For some people, a dab this size may have little effect on blood sugar. But increase that dab to 3 tablespoons poured over eggs and home fries, and the ketchup now has as many carbohydrates as a slice of bread! And that is hardly free. Guidelines suggest it’s okay to eat as many as three servings of these foods daily without counting them toward your carb totals. But I tell my clients to be sure to spread them out over your day.

Here are a few that need measuring.1


Free Food Serving Size

Barbeque sauce 1 tsp
Ketchup 1 Tbsp
Pickle Relish 1 Tbsp
Salsa ¼ cup
Fat-free or low-fat salad dressing 1 Tbsp
Soy sauce, light or regular 1 Tbsp
Nondairy creamer, powdered 1 tsp
No-sugar-added jelly 2 tsp
Carrots, cooked ¼ cup
Cucumber, sliced ½ cup
Sugar-free syrup 2 Tbsp

Free foods may have more carbohydrates than you realize. One tablespoon of honey mustard is a free food, but have you looked at the label of your favorite brand? Some are significantly more than 20 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrate per tablespoon. The same goes for low-fat and fat-free salad dressings. Many have double the calories of a “free food” and more than 5 grams of carbs. I remind my clients to measure; portion pitfalls may lead to tallying up surprising numbers of calories and carbs. (Read more tips here for avoiding portion pitfalls.)

Free foods may be loaded with sodium or saturated fats and offer little nutritional value. The criteria for free foods are based on the amounts of calories and carbohydrates. But pickles, broth, soy sauce and salad dressings often have very high amounts of sodium. For example, even reduced-sodium soy sauce packs more than 400 mg of sodium per tablespoon. (Learn more about the basics of sodium.) And then there are the unhealthful saturated fats found in some coffee creamers and salad dressings. That’s why I recommend reading the labels on all free foods.


Some free foods are essentially unlimited. Having diabetes means measuring – measuring portions, measuring blood sugar. But yay for sugar-free gelatin, salad greens and vinegar! These foods and a few others require no measuring; so I tell my clients to feel free to eat them in any reasonable quantity. Other unlimited free foods:

  • Horseradish
  • Mustard
  • Bouillon or broth (watch out for sodium)
  • Unsweetened coffee or tea
  • Sugar-free sodas and flavored waters
  • Sugar substitutes
  • Herbs and spices

I encourage being creative with these free foods. Instead of adding carbs with crackers, I like to use endive’s unique shape to scoop dips, bruschetta and salsas. You may want to “sandwich” your turkey and veggies with large lettuce leaves instead of carb-rich bread, or try to satisfy hunger with a low-sodium, brothy vegetable soup.

Some free foods make your meals extra delicious. I cook with low-sodium broth, vinegars, lemon juice and herbs and spices everyday. These are some of my favorites:

  • Drizzle balsamic vinegar over garden fresh tomatoes or sliced strawberries.
  • Simmer quinoa, brown rice, wheat berries and other whole grains in low sodium chicken or vegetable broth instead of plain water.
  • Squeeze fresh lemon over fish, green vegetables or a bean and veggie stew.
  • Toss fresh basil, dill and cilantro into your salad or onto your sandwich.
  • Flavor sliced peaches with fresh mint leaves.
  • Sprinkle cinnamon over oatmeal or cottage cheese.
  • Add curry powder to lentils and ginger to roasted carrots.

From my perspective, here’s the bottom line: Diabetes free foods are free only if used wisely. As always, I recommend reading food labels, being portion savvy and seeking the advice of your healthcare team.

Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE*, FAND is the author of Diabetes Weight Loss Week by Week, and the upcoming The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition, as well as contributing editor at Environmental Nutrition. She has written for many publications including EatingWell, Diabetic Living, Her Sports + Fitness, and LifeScript. Weisenberger is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.

 1Nutritional data calculated using the USDA National Nutrient Database

© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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