Reading food labels: Tips for people with diabetes

Food labels can be an essential tool for diabetes meal planning. Here's what to look for when comparing food labels.

When you have diabetes, your diet is an important part of your treatment plan. And of course you know what you're eating — a turkey sandwich, a glass of skim milk, a sugar-free fudge pop. But do you pay attention to the details? Reading food labels can help you make the best choices.

Start with the list of ingredients

When you're looking at food labels, start with the list of ingredients. Keep an eye out for heart-healthy ingredients such as whole-wheat flour, soy and oats. Monounsaturated fats — such as olive, canola or peanut oils — promote heart health, too. Likewise, use food labels to detect unhealthy ingredients, such as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil.

Keep in mind that ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. The main ingredient is listed first, followed by other ingredients used in lesser amounts.

Consider carbs in context

If your meal plan is based on carbohydrate counting, food labels become an essential tool for meal planning. Look at the grams of total carbohydrate — which includes sugar, complex carbohydrate and fiber — rather than only the grams of sugar. If you zero in on sugar content, you could miss out on nutritious foods naturally high in sugar, such as fruit and milk. And you might overdo foods with no natural or added sugar but plenty of carbohydrate, such as certain cereals and grains.

Pay special attention to high-fiber foods. Although the grams of sugar and fiber are counted as part of the grams of total carbohydrate, the count can sometimes be misleading. If a food has 5 grams or more fiber in a serving, the American Diabetes Association recommends subtracting the fiber grams from the total grams of carbohydrate for a more accurate estimate of the product's carbohydrate content.

Put sugar-free products in their place

Sugar-free foods may play a role in your diabetes diet — but sugar-free doesn't mean carbohydrate-free. When you're choosing between standard products and their sugar-free counterparts, compare the food labels side by side. If the sugar-free product has noticeably fewer carbohydrates, the sugar-free product might be the better choice. But if there's little difference in carbohydrate grams between the two foods, let taste — or price — be your guide.

The same caveat applies to products sporting a "no sugar added" label. Although these foods don't contain high-sugar ingredients and no sugar is added during processing or packaging, foods without added sugar may still be high in carbohydrates.

Likewise, products that contain sugar alcohols — such as sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol — aren't necessarily low in carbohydrates or calories.

Beware of fat-free products

Per gram, fat has more than twice the calories of carbohydrate or protein. If you're trying to lose weight, fat-free foods might sound like just the ticket. But don't be fooled by "fat-free" food labels. Fat-free foods can have more carbohydrates and contain nearly as many calories as the standard version of the same food.

The lesson? You guessed it. Compare food labels for fat-free and standard products carefully before you make a decision. And remember that the amount of total fat listed on a food label doesn't tell the whole story. Look for a breakdown of types of fat. Although still high in calories, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help lower your cholesterol and protect your heart. Saturated and trans fats raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease.

Know what counts as a free food

Just as food labels can help you rule out certain foods, food labels can also serve as your guide to free foods. A free food is one with less than 20 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrate per serving. You can include some free foods — such as diet sodas, sugar-free flavored gelatin and sugar-free gum — in your diet as often as you like. You can eat others — such as hard candy, fat-free cream cheese and fat-free salad dressing — up to three times a day.
Do the math

The serving sizes listed on food labels may be different than the serving sizes in your meal plan. If you eat twice the serving size listed on the label, you also double the calories, fat, carbohydrate and sodium.

The same goes for the Percent (%) Daily Value listed on food labels. This percentage, which is based on a 2,000-calorie diet, helps you gauge how much of a specific nutrient one serving of food contains compared with recommendations for the whole day. If your doctor or registered dietitian recommends more or less than 2,000 calories a day, you may need to adjust the percentage accordingly — or simply use the percentage as a general frame of reference.

The bottom line

What you eat is up to you. Whether you're trying to reduce the amount of fat, cholesterol and sodium in your diet or boost your intake of fiber, whole grains and other healthy nutrients, use food labels to help meet your healthy-eating goals.