Melissa Altman-Traub MS, RDN, LDN
The Nutrition Facts Panel has earned a reputation for causing some confusion. This is in part because different health conditions or dietary restrictions require us to focus our eyes on different elements of the food label.
When working with clients who have diabetes, I am often asked how to use the Nutrition Facts Panel on food labels. Some of the most common questions are:
"What should I watch out for on food labels?"
"I always check for the sugar, is that right?"
"If a food has fiber in it, is it a ‘free food’?"
If you find yourself asking the same questions, read on to learn how to make sense of the Nutrition Facts Panel.Where should you start?
Serving size and servings per container are at the top for a reason. They are the most important place to start. The first thing you should check is the serving size. For example, a serving of fruit juice or a soft drink is 8 fl. oz. However, if people drink the whole bottle, which could be 20 fl. oz., then the calories and carbohydrates on the label would have to be multiplied by 2.5 for the correct amount consumed. That being said, try to stick to the suggested serving size as your portion too!
Which nutrient is the most important? Next, check the total carbohydrates. A common nutrition myth is that only the sugar in a food affects blood sugar. However, both starch (complex carbohydrates) and simple sugar will raise blood sugar levels.
Which foods contain carbohydrates? Sweets of course, but some sources are less obvious. One serving of fruit, milk, yogurt (without added sugar), or starch (like bread, crackers, rice, baked beans) provides about 15 grams (g) of carbohydrate. If you use the carbohydrate exchanges (which used to be called the diabetes or ADA exchanges), then 15 g of carbohydrate = 1 carbohydrate serving.
How much and how often? A typical meal should be around 45-60 g of carbohydrate.* Those carbohydrates should come from a variety of foods. When reading the carbohydrates on the labels, see how the food would fit into your day – allowing for consistent carbohydrate intake throughout the day.
*Individual carbohydrate needs will vary from person to person and you should meet with a dietitian or certified diabetes educator to help you best meet your needs.
Look for “Total Carbohydrate” on the nutrition facts panel – focus on this rather than sugars when planning meals.
For this sugar-sweetened beverage, you can see that one serving has 19 g carbohydrate. If you were to drink the whole bottle, you’d count 38 g – leaving little room for more nutrient-dense carbohydrates in your meal.
Why focus on fiber content?
For starters, many of us don’t get enough fiber. Fiber is a part of plant food that we are not able to digest. High fiber foods aren’t necessarily “free” foods, but it is possible that they aid in digestion, help keep us regular and help you feel full longer. Most Americans fall significantly short of the approximately 25-30 g daily recommendation.1 Look for foods that provide at least 3 g of fiber or more per serving, as a good choice.
Opt for more of the good stuff!
Keep in mind that some sugary products like candy and soda, have little else to offer. Check on the nutrition facts panel for positive nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamin and minerals that are beneficial to health.
A simple example from my day
A Pepperidge Farm® 100% Whole Wheat mini bagel is something I love at breakfast time or as a snack with light cream cheese or almond butter (it also makes a great base for a pizza bagel). The portion size is very convenient. Instead of containing over 300 calories and 60 or more grams of carbohydrate like many “regular” sized bagels, each one is 100 calories with 20 grams carbohydrate—and the 3 g of fiber in each is a plus!
Hopefully you now feel more confident when reading food labels. It can be a great tool for diabetes management. The key words to focus on the food label to “decode for diabetes” are serving size, servings per container, total carbohydrate, fiber and more of the “good stuff” we discussed.
Yours in Good Health,
Melissa Altman-Traub MS, RDN, LDN is a college nutrition instructor and has been a registered dietitian for over 20 years. She has a Bachelor's degree in nutrition from the Pennsylvania State University and a Master’s degree in Health Education from Arcadia University. Her areas of expertise include plant-based diets, diabetes, and kidney disease. Visit her website at http://about.me/melissatraubrd.
- http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/understanding-carbohydrates/types-of-carbohydrates.html Types of Carbohydrates. Accessed Sept 19th, 2014.