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What You Can Learn from Reading Food Labels


Updated December 27, 2011

What You Can Learn from Reading Food Labels

Careful reading of food labels can help you manage your blood glucose levels.

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Managing your blood glucose with attention to food labels:

Learning to carefully read food labels may not rank high on your diabetes management priority list, but it should. Label-reading is one of the best ways to ensure that you are buying nutritious food and knowing what an appropriate serving is to manage your portions.

For people with diabetes, there are seven important sections on every food label that you should pay attention to.


At the top of the food label is the number of calories per serving. Be clear on the fact that many products, though small in size, have multiple servings in one package. For example, a small box of crackers lists two crackers as equivalent to one serving, totaling 60 calories. Let’s say you ignore the label information and eat until you are satisfied, which comes to 10 crackers. That would add up to 600 calories. Knowing the number of calories you consume on the front end of your eating helps you make better decisions that affect your blood glucose. Also, if you are trying to maintain or lose weight, you want to be aware of the calories you eat. When shopping, compare similar products so you can choose the option with fewer calories.

Total fat

The listing for total fat indicates the amount of fat in that one serving. Some fats, such as mono and polyunsaturated fats, can help lower your blood cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease. Saturated fats and trans fats can raise your blood cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. You want to pay attention to the percentage of the fat that comes from saturated and trans fats. Ideally, you want this percentage to be low in saturated fat and to contain no trans fats.


Though sodium does not directly affect your blood sugar levels it can contribute to high blood pressure. Having diabetes already increases your risk of heart disease, and with it high blood pressure. So, you will want to monitor the amount of sodium in your food. This can be difficult because sodium is in nearly all processed food. The average adult should try to consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. If you know that you already have high blood pressure, your doctor may recommend a lower daily amount.

Total carbohydrates

The label calculates the total carbohydrate of a single serving by combining sugar, fiber and complex carbohydrates into a single figure. Then it breaks it down further into the grams of fiber and sugars (below). If you are counting carbohydrates, work with the total carbohydrate number and not the grams of sugars. When a food has over five grams of fiber subtract half of those grams from the total carbohydrate to get a more accurate number of total carbohydrates. For example, if a single serving of a particular food has 36 grams of total carbohydrate and 12 grams of fiber, subtract six grams (one half) of the fiber total from the total carbohydrates listed and you have a revised total of 30 grams of carbohydrate. This will enable you to better count the actual number of carbohydrates that will affect your blood sugar.


Fiber is the part of the food that is not digested and helps move food through the colon. Half of the fiber grams are deducted from the total carbohydrate amount to account for the fact that much of fiber is not digested and absorbed by the intestine. Therefore, it doesn’t have much effect on blood glucose. The recommended amount of fiber is 25 to 30 grams per day for an average adult.

Sugar and sugar alcohols

In addition to listing the grams of sugars in a single serving, foods that are sugar free often contain sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol. If a product contains sugar alcohol, it will be shown just below the line where grams of sugar are listed. It is important to remember that "sugar free" does not mean calorie or carbohydrate-free.

List of ingredients

The list of ingredients is often overlooked but is equally important. Ingredients are listed by weight, meaning that those ingredients that are used most appear first in the list; those used less appear later in the list. This is where you want to keep an eye out for things you want to avoid, like high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oil near the front of the ingredients list. You can also use the list to look for heart-healthy ingredients such as olive oil, whole grains and oats.


American Diabetes Association. "Taking a Closer Look at Labels.”

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