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Nutrition Facts: How to Read Food Labels

Take the confusion out of shopping for healthy foods with this simple guide to reading food labels. With tips on counting grams of carbohydrate, eating plenty of dietary fiber, keeping a watchful eye on serving sizes, and more, we'll explain what to look for at the market.
  • What To Look For On The Label

    A trip to the supermarket can easily turn into a headache, and not just because of high food prices. Competing claims on food packages -- Made with whole grains! Reduced sugar! A good source of fiber! -- vie for your time, attention, and money.

    What matters most on a food label depends on what type of diabetes you have and your weight-management concerns. People with type 1 diabetes and those who take insulin before meals may be most interested in the total carbohydrate count in foods, but that information may be less important for people trying to lose weight. "Having diabetes doesn't mean your highest priority is to count total grams of carbohydrate," says Madelyn Wheeler, RD, CDE. "A person newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes might choose to zero in on fat grams and total calories to trim pounds."

    Are the Facts Exact? 
    Nutrient numbers may be rounded, although how the rounding is calculated is regulated. This makes nutrient counts a bit less precise, especially when you eat multiple servings of the food.

  • Labeling Rules

    The current food-labeling regulations, established in 1994 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), are legal requirements. The regulations detail how manufacturers must analyze food products, what nutrients they must list and how to calculate them, and even the size of the words on the label.

    Manufacturers are responsible for analyzing their food products, but the federal agencies can also analyze foods and take actions if the nutrition facts are false. Food-labeling regulations undergo periodic changes as the FDA and USDA notice consumer confusion, manufacturers change their practices, and manufacturers and public-interest groups lobby for changes.

    The FDA proposed a Nutrition Facts label update in February 2014. The first makeover in 20 years, the proposed labels would showcase several key changes to design and content. Most noticeably, a larger, bolder font would be used to list calories and serving sizes, a nod to health concerns such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Click here for the proposed changes.

  • Serving Size

    Food label serving sizes sometimes differ from diabetes exchanges and recommended serving sizes for people with diabetes. For example, the food label serving size for fruit juice is 8 ounces, or 1 cup. A diabetes exchange or serving of fruit juice is about 1/3 to 1/2 cup for most types of juice.

    Under the food labeling regulations, there are standard serving sizes for nearly 140 categories of foods so manufacturers can't use unrealistic servings to make their products seem more nutritious. Sizes are intended to be reasonable but on the slight side. Serving sizes must be noted in household measures, such as 1 cup, or the number of items, such as 8 crackers.

    Servings per Container 
    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. Double-check this important number on the label before eating the entire thing. If it contains more than one serving, multiply the nutrition information by the number of servings.

  • Total Carbohydrate

    Noted in bold on the Nutrition Facts label, total carbohydrate is the umbrella under which carbohydrate sources are detailed. Dietary fiber and sugars, the two items required to be listed, are indented under total carbohydrate. Manufacturers may voluntarily list other sources, such as insoluble or soluble fiber, other carbohydrate, or sugar alcohols. When making carbohydrate-related nutrition claims, such as "sugar free," on the food package, manufacturers must list related sources of carbohydrate on the label.

    Other Carbohydrate 
    Other carbohydrate is listed infrequently, but it might appear on cereal labels. This source of carbohydrate, from several types of starches, is what's left after subtracting sugars, sugar alcohols, and fiber. 

  • Total Fat

    Under total fat, food labels must list saturated fat and trans fat. These fats are closely associated with raising LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and increasing the risk of heart and blood vessel diseases, common complications of diabetes.

    Paying attention to the total fat in a food is important 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 to lose weight.

    All foods that contain fat have varying amounts of different types of fats -- from the less healthy saturated and trans fats to the healthier polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

    Saturated Fat 
    Saturated fat is mainly found in foods from animal origins, such as red meat, poultry, and seafood; and full-fat dairy foods, such as whole or 2 percent milk, cheeses, and yogurt. Some non-animal-based sources of saturated fat include coconut and palm kernel oil. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) currently recommends consuming no more than 10 percent of daily calories from saturated fat, which is the same recommendation for the general public.

    Trans Fat 
    Some trans fat is found in red meats and full-fat dairy foods, but the trans fats that experts are most concerned about regarding heart health come from partially hydrogenated oils and shortenings created by converting liquid oil into a solid fat during food processing. These can be found in some fried restaurant foods, fried snack foods, and other packaged foods, such as crackers and cookies. However, the amount of trans fat consumed has been decreasing due to the FDA’s 2006 regulation that required manufacturers to list the amount of trans fat on most labels. Experts recommend consuming as close to 0 grams of trans fat per day as possible. Trans fat increases LDL (bad) cholesterol and decreases HDL (good) cholesterol.

    Polyunsaturated Fat

    The two main types of polyunsaturated fat are omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Both are good for your heart and blood lipids (cholesterol). Liquid vegetable oils, such as corn, soybean, and sunflower oils, contain mainly omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3s are found in both plant and animal fats. The plant sources of omega-3s can be found in canola oil, soybean oil, flax oil and seeds, and walnut oil and walnuts. Animal-based sources include fatty fish such as salmon.

    Monounsaturated Fat

    Monounsaturated fat, just like polyunsaturated fat, is healthy for your heart. The foods and oils that are the best sources of monounsaturated fat come from nuts (other than walnuts and chestnuts); canola, olive, and peanut oils; olives; and avocados.

    Manufacturers may voluntarily list these more healthful fats. However, they are required to list them if a nutrition claim is made about them on the package. These fats are from plant sources and are usually liquid at room temperature.

  • Dietary Fiber

    Dietary fiber is a carbohydrate, typically from plant foods, that cannot be digested by enzymes in the small intestine. If listed, insoluble and soluble fibers are indented under dietary fiber.

    Insoluble fiber: This is dietary fiber that's not digestible. Insoluble fiber is usually found in whole grain cereals and breads. Manufacturers may subtract grams of insoluble fiber from the total carbohydrate count to derive the calories per serving.

    Soluble fiber: This is dietary fiber that's digested but remains gummy and thick (and helps you feel full). Soluble fiber is usually found in beans, peas, oats, and barley.

  • Sugars

    Included in the sugars grouping are all one-unit sugars (monosaccharides, such as glucose and fructose) and two-unit sugars (disaccharides, such as sucrose, lactose, and the commonly used sweetener high-fructose corn syrup). The sugars on the label contain all naturally occurring sugars, such as sucrose in fruit and lactose in milk, as well as added sugars -- those added to products during manufacturing. "Often, people with diabetes who haven't had diabetes education focus on 'sugars' because they think these are simply sucrose or added sugars and they need to be avoided like the plague," says Madelyn Wheeler, RD, CDE. But you need not avoid or think you can avoid all sugars from your diet. Naturally occurring sugars found in fruit and dairy products are part of a well-balanced eating plan.

    The current Nutrition Facts label doesn't distinguish between the two types of sugars. "You can infer the sources of sugars by checking the ingredients listed in descending order by weight," Wheeler says. Ingredients such as refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are added during the manufacturing process. Some health advocates, including the ADA, are encouraging the FDA to require listing "added sugars" separately or as the only sugars accounted for under "sugars" when they revise the Nutrition Facts label over the next few years. 

    See The top 20 added sugars most used in foods.

  • Sugar Alcohols (Polyols)

    Called sugar alcohols because part of their structure chemically resembles sugar and part resembles alcohol, these ingredients are neither sugar nor alcohol. Polyols are in sugar-free foods such as candy, cookies, ice cream, and chewing gum. They're used alone or combined with sugar substitutes to sweeten and provide bulk. Common polyols are sorbitol, erythritol, maltitol, and mannitol. Many end in "ol," but not all. The words "sugar alcohol" or the specific polyol (if only one is used) must be provided when a nutrition claim such as "sugar-free" is made on the food package.

    Sugar alcohols cause a lower rise in blood sugar and contain fewer calories (2 calories per gram of carbohydrate instead of 4 calories per gram). The downside? In some people, polyols can cause gas, bloating, or diarrhea, especially in children. Foods with large amounts of polyols must state on the package: "Excess consumption may have a laxative effect." 

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