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Making Sense of Nutrition Labels

What to look for – and what to avoid

There’s probably no escaping reading food labels if you live with diabetes. But do you key in on just those aspects of the label that require your attention? Or are you like many of my clients who may get distracted and confused by the noise of so many numbers and claims? Here are 4 steps that I share with clients so they can better understand labels. (Be sure to check with your diabetes care team before making any changes to your meal plan.)

Skip the front of package claims

Sugar Free, Made with Whole Grains, Low Fat. These claims may be good marketing, but they aren’t always informative. Made with Whole Grains, for example, may indicate a product that’s largely whole grain or hardly whole grain. (Read more about whole grains here.) Sugar Free may sound like it’s low calorie and that it won’t affect blood sugar, but this may or may not be so. (Read more about what sugar-free means.) It’s better to ignore the front of the package and head straight to the Nutrition Facts panel. This part of the label leaves no room for spinning the truth. The Nutrition Facts panel is like the fine print of a contract, so I recommend reading it very carefully.

Check serving size first

Every number on the Nutrition Facts panel is based on this amount of food. If your portion is twice the serving size, you are eating double the calories, carbohydrates, saturated fat, sodium and everything else listed on the label. Be leery of small packages. Some of my clients have assumed that their bottled beverage was one serving. How shocking to find out that their 20-ounce drink was really 2.5 servings!

Know what affects your blood sugar

After identifying the serving size on the label, I recommend going straight to Total Carbohydrate. This number includes all carbohydrates: sugars, starches, fibers and sugar alcohols like sorbitol and mannitol. (Learn more about the basics of carb counting.) Some people want to focus on sugars only, and this might be the reason that their blood sugar is higher than they expect it to be. Consider this example (using data from the searchable USDA Nutrient Database):

Brown rice, 1 cup cooked:

  • Total Carbohydrate: 45g
    • Sugars: 1g
    • Dietary Fiber: 3g

Nonfat milk, 1 cup:

  • Total Carbohydrate: 12g
    • Sugars: 12g
    • Dietary Fiber: 0

If someone considered sugars only, they might think that a cup of milk with 12 grams of sugar would raise their blood sugar more than a cup of brown rice with only 1 gram of sugar. This would be incorrect because there are 45 grams of total carbohydrate in the rice and only 12 in the milk. I advise clients that they may experience a higher blood sugar response when consuming more carbohydrate.

By the way, sugar in milk comes from lactose. If I have a client who is lactose intolerant, I tell them this tip for using food labels to see how much lactose is in plain dairy foods. If a cheese label lists 3 grams of carbohydrate per serving, there are 3 grams of lactose. If it shows no carbohydrate, there is no lactose. This trick doesn’t work for flavored milks and yogurt or any product with added sugar.

Key in on other important numbers

Because carbohydrates affect blood sugar more than other nutrients, it may be tempting to ignore other numbers. Don’t fall for that trap.

The Food and Drug Administration has recommended a new format for nutrition data on food labels. It may be some time before we see changes on the supermarket shelves, however.

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.

© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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