Food labels provide information about the nutrients in a particular food and can be very helpful for people with diabetes. Food labels grace the packages of almost all foods these days except fresh fruits and vegetables and some bakery and deli items.
Since I find some food-label information useful and some of it not particularly helpful, I’ll list my guidelines for making sense of these labels and getting useful information from them.
- Serving size: Find the serving size at the top, or on the left side, of the label. This is the manufacturer’s idea of what an average serving should be. Always double check to find out how many servings are in the package. This is important because the rest of the information on the label refers to a single serving. If a package contains two servings and I eat the whole package, then I have to multiply all the other numbers by two.
- Total carbohydrate: For people with diabetes who are counting carbohydrates, the next important line is the one that gives the total carbohydrate per serving. This is often in bold and sometimes abbreviated as “total carb.” The number provided right after “total carbohydrate” tells how many grams of carbohydrate are in a single serving. This number includes all the different kinds of carbohydrate found in that food. The total carbohydrate also includes the dietary fiber and the sugars, which are indented and listed below so that you don’t need to count the grams of sugar.
- Total fat: The total grams of fat are listed right after “total fat.” If this number is less than five grams, it is considered a lower-fat food. Indented under “total fat” will be the different types of fat. Saturated fat should be less than one-third of the total fat. Trans fat should be zero. The label may also list polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These are generally thought to be healthier since they don’t raise cholesterol levels like saturated and trans fats do.
- Sodium: The percentages listed on the right side of the label are not helpful. I ignore all of them except the one for sodium. Many people are trying to lower their sodium intake to help lower blood pressure. If the percent sodium is 10 percent or less for one serving, a food is considered a lower-sodium food.
- Calories: The total calories in one serving are listed under the serving size, and the servings per container. This number is helpful if you are counting calories, but otherwise look at the particular nutrient(s) you are monitoring. (A tip: Most snacks for people trying to lose weight should be 150 calories or less.)
- Miscellaneous information: The bottom part of the label provides supplemental information about the percentages of major vitamins and minerals in the food. There are also some recommended guidelines for nutrients if, for example, one is eating 2,000 or 2,500 calories per day, as well as a line that tells how many calories per gram are in the three major food nutrients (fat, carbohydrate, and protein). I rarely look at these numbers since I think is it better to focus on the individual food item.
Reading food labels may be time consuming at first. However, the more you read them, the easier it will become for you to make healthy food choices and meet your goals for carbohydrate, fat, or sodium intake. Give it a try!