Eye-catching claims on the front of food packages compete for your attention: Made with whole wheat! Reduced sugar! A good source of fiber! Truth is, the most helpful information on a food product is on the back (or side) of the package, in the Nutrition Facts panel. Of course, that information can be confusing too. Here’s what you need to know to make sense of those numbers.
Be aware! The serving size recommended on the Nutrition Facts label may be different than what you know as a diabetes exchange. For example, the standard food-label serving size for fruit juice is 8 ounces, or 1 cup. A diabetes exchange of fruit juice is about 1/2 cup (4 ounces) for most types of juice. So while the food label serving sizes are “standardized” and regulated, they may be larger (or smaller) than what you think a serving is.
The information noted on the Nutrition Facts label is for one serving. Some snack packages and drink containers (even those that appear to be a single serving) contain more than one serving. Check this part of the label before consuming the entire quantity.
Paying attention to the total fat in a food can be helpful because fat is the most concentrated source of calories (9 calories per gram). Eating too much fat can lead to unwanted weight gain or make it tougher for you to lose weight. From a health perspective, the numbers for saturated fat and trans fats—listed under total fat—are more important, as these fats are closely associated with raising LDL cholesterol and increasing the risk of heart and blood vessel diseases.
Saturated fats come primarily from animal-based foods (think: red meat, cheese, whole milk). The American Diabetes Association currently recommends you eat no more than 7 percent of your calories as saturated fat—that’s about 11 grams of saturated fat if you’re eating 1,500 calories a day, and about 15 grams if you’re consuming 2,000 calories daily.
These man-made fats (which act like saturated fats) are found in many snack foods like crackers and baked goods. Experts recommend you eat as close to zero grams of trans fats per day as possible, since trans fats raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. Note: If a food has less than 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving, the manufacturer can round down to 0 grams. The best way to avoid trans fats is to scan the ingredients list to be sure the food doesn’t contain any “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oils.
The total carbohydrate number includes carbohydrate from all sources, even if that source is not specifically listed in the nutrition facts. Although fiber and sugars are always listed separately beneath the total carbohydrate figure, they’re also included in that total figure.
This number includes naturally occurring sugars, such as fructose in fruit, as well as added sugars—those added to products during manufacturing—such as sucrose (aka, table sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup. Note: Some health advocates are encouraging the Food and Drug Administration to require food manufacturers to list "added sugars" separately since naturally occurring sugars found in fruit and dairy products are part of a well-balanced meal plan and lumping them in with added sugars often creates confusion.
Dietary fiber is a carbohydrate, typically from plant foods, that cannot be digested in the small intestine. Because fiber is not digested, for carbohydrate-counting purposes, if a serving of a food contains at least 5 grams of dietary fiber, subtract half the grams of dietary fiber from the total carbs to get your carb count.
You may see these listed on foods with a “sugar-free” claim. Sugar alcohols (which are neither sugar nor alcohol), sweeten and bulk up sugar-free candy, cookies, ice cream and chewing gum. Sugar alcohols cause a lower rise in blood sugar and contain fewer calories than other carbohydrates (2 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram). The downside? Polyols can cause diarrhea in some people, especially children. How to count sugar alcohols: For foods with more than 5 grams of sugar alcohol, subtract half the grams of sugar alcohol from the carbohydrate grams to get your carb count.
These are reference amounts set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). You can use Daily Values to help you track how much of your nutrient needs a food fulfills. But take note: the DVs are set according to how many calories you eat—and Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000-calories-a-day diet. If you’re only eating 1,500 calories daily, for example, your DV goals will be approximately one-fourth to one-third lower than what’s on the label.