Using Nutrition Facts Labels
As a registered dietitian I have great appreciation for the amount of information that’s included on nutrition facts labels, and as a person with diabetes I know how helpful that information can be to us. But, the information is only useful if we use it, so I’d like to take a few minutes to make nutrition facts labels practical for you.
A great place to begin making nutrition facts labels of practical use is to point out the information most people don’t need to be concerned with.
- All nutrition facts labels contain information about “% daily value” for fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate and protein as well as vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron and sometimes other nutrients (vitamin D, phosphorous). These percentages might be helpful in a general way, like for knowing that milk is a great source of calcium (30% daily value per cup) or that a tablespoon of soy sauce has a great deal of sodium (40% daily value). But, unless you’re keeping a spreadsheet of everything you eat in a day these percentages may just be distracting.
For diabetes and weight management, here’s what’s most important:
- Serving size and servings per container – all of the nutrition information is based upon a specified serving size for the product. The serving size (and servings per container) can be very important for packaged foods that may appear to be a single serving, like a “regular-sized” bag of microwave popcorn, which is often 3 servings (triple the values given on the label). Serving size also helps you realize how the carbohydrate in some foods can add up quickly. My husband enjoys “light, flaky and buttery” crackers that are about 1” wide and 2” long. The nutrition information looks reasonable at 70 calories and 9 grams carbohydrate per serving. But, the serving size – four crackers.
- Total fat – there’s a lot of debate about dietary fat, but two points are hard to argue. First, “trans fat” should be avoided, and unsaturated fats should be preferred. You’ll find both “trans fat” and “mono” and “poly” unsaturated fats listed on the nutrition label. Second, all fat adds twice as many calories as protein or carbohydrate – protein and carbohydrate each have 4 calories per gram, fat has 9 calories per gram. Going for lower fat foods is the most effective way to cut calories.
- Total carbohydrate – carbohydrate affects blood glucose levels, so we look to manage our intake. Serving size and total carbohydrate give you the information you need to “count” carbohydrates in your meals. Total carbohydrate is also broken down into subcategories – fiber, sugars and sugar alcohols. But, it’s important to note that “sugars” doesn’t necessarily mean added sugars – this subcategory includes both natural and added sugar.
- Ingredients – the ingredients list is helpful for finding things like added sugars (which are often listed in creative ways). I detailed how you can find added sugar by its other names in my article Knowing Carbohydrates -Sweets
Don’t be intimidated by nutrition facts labels. Focus on what’s important for diabetes and weight management, and you’ll be making better choices right away.
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