Reading food labels: Tips if you have diabetes

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

When you have diabetes, your diet is a vital part of your treatment plan. 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, such as calories, total carbohydrates, fiber, fat, salt and sugar? 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.
  • Avoid unhealthy ingredients, such as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil.

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

Consider carbs in context

If your meal plan is based on carbohydrate counting, food labels become an essential tool.

  • Look at total carbohydrates, not just sugar. Evaluate the grams of total carbohydrates — 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 carbohydrates, such as certain cereals and grains.
  • Don't miss out on high-fiber foods. Pay special attention to high-fiber foods. Look for foods with 3 or more grams of fiber. When counting carbohydrates, if a food has more than 5 grams of fiber, you can subtract half of the total grams of fiber from the total carbohydrates to get your count. High fiber foods help reduce the absorption of more-simple carbohydrates.

Put sugar-free products in their place

  • Sugar-free doesn't mean carbohydrate-free. Sugar-free foods may play a role in your diabetes diet, but remember to consider carbohydrates, as well. A sugar-free label means that one serving has less than 0.5 gram of sugar. When you're choosing between standard products and their sugar-free counterparts, compare the food labels. 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.
  • No sugar added, but not necessarily no carbohydrates. 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.
  • Sugar alcohols contain carbohydrates and calories, too. Likewise, products that contain sugar alcohols — such as sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol — aren't necessarily low in carbohydrates or calories.
Jun. 25, 2013 See more In-depth