Reading Food Labels, The Most Basic Tool in Diabetes Management

If you have diabetes, you know that diet is an important part of your treatment. Have you ever paid attention to the details of the foods you eat? For example, do you know how many calories the food you eat has? What is the amount of carbohydrates, fiber, fat, and salt? Reading food labels will assist you to find the answers to these questions.

Although trying to understand nutritional information via reading food labels is not an easy task, our skilled nurses will help you.

What is the importance of reading food labels?

The Nutrition Facts label tells you which food items are a healthier choice for you. Basically, these labels show the number of calories, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and vitamins in each serving. So you can compare the nutrients of similar products and make better choices. You can even compare different brands of similar products to make a healthier choice.


List of ingredients


Calories are the unit of energy. The body needs calories to have vital functions. The amount of calories you need is determined by your gender, age, activity level, and current weight. Do you know how many calories you need daily? You should seek help from your registered dietitian nutritionist to find the answer to this question.


Total carbohydrate

Total carbohydrates refer to sugar, starch, and fiber. When you eat drinks or foods that contain carbohydrates, the carbohydrates in your body are broken down into glucose. As a result, your blood sugar rises. Therefore, people with diabetes should do carb counting depending on their treatment regimen. So you need to count the number of grams of carbs you eat and match it with your insulin dose.


Fiber is part of plant foods that are not digested by the body. Legumes such as beans and whole intact grains are a good source of fiber. The amount of fiber you need is determined by your age and gender. Consumption of fiber helps in better digestion, blood sugar management, lowering cholesterol, and reducing the risk of heart disease. People with diabetes need to eat at least the same amount of dietary fiber recommended for all Americans.


Sugar alcohols

Sugar alcohols are sweeteners and have fewer calories than regular sugars. They occur both naturally in vegetables and fruits and are produced man-made and added to processed foods.



Total fat indicates how much fat is in a serving of food. After carbohydrates, fat is an important factor in the diet of people with diabetes. The main four types of fats are saturated, trans, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fat. People with diabetes should use more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in their diet. So if you have diabetes, pay attention to the amount and type of fat when reading food labels.



Sodium is another parameter when reading food labels. Although sodium or sugar has no effect on blood sugar levels, increasing the amount of sodium increases the risk of heart problems.


Some tips to help you with reading food labels

List of ingredientsAmount
  • Less than 5 calories per serving (calories free)
  • 40 calories or less per serving (low calories)
Total fats
  • Less than 0.5 gr of fat (fat-free)
  • Less than 0.5 gr of saturated fat (saturated fat-free)
  • Less than 0.5 gr of trans fat (trans fat-free)
  • 3 gr or less of total fat (low fat)
  • 1 gr or less of saturated fat (low saturated fat)
  • At least 25% less fat than the regular version (reduced-fat or less fat)


  • Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving (sodium-free or salt-free)
  • 35 mg of sodium or less (very low sodium)
  • 140 mg of sodium or less (low sodium)
  • at least 25% less sodium than the regular version (reduced-sodium or less sodium)
  • Less than 2 mg per serving (cholesterol-free)
  • 20 mg or less (low cholesterol)
  • At least 25% less cholesterol than the regular version (reduced cholesterol or less cholesterol)
  • Less than 0.5 gr of sugar per serving (sugar-free)
  • At least 25% less sugar per serving than the regular version (reduced sugar)
  • No sugar or sugar-containing ingredient is added during processing (no sugar added or without added sugars)
  • 5 gr or more of fiber per serving (high fiber)
  • 2.5 to 4.9 gr of fiber per serving (good source of fiber)

A simple formula in reading food labels

Aside from the factors you need to keep in mind, always remember food with more fiber, vitamins, and minerals is a  healthier choice. Conversely, more saturated fat, salt, and added sugars in a portion of food mean it is unhealthy.

Remember that the ingredients listed on the food label are sorted by weight. In other words, the first ingredient in “Nutrition Facts” represents the heaviest component. If your meal plan is such that you have to count carbohydrates, reading food labels is a very important tool for you. In this case, you should consider the following tips:

  • Do not focus only on the amount of glucose when reading food labels: You should pay attention to the total amount of carbohydrates, which in addition to glucose will also include complex carbohydrates and fiber.
  • Don’t forget high-fiber foods: Look for foods that contain at least 3 grams of fiber.
  • Sugar-free does not mean no carbohydrates: sugar-free means that one serving has less than 0.5 grams of sugar. Pay attention to their food label when choosing between standard and sugar-free products. If the sugar-free product has fewer carbohydrates, it makes more sense to choose it. But if there is not much difference between them, you can choose based on taste or price.
  • Do not be fooled by the added sugar-free label: Although these foods do not contain high-sugar ingredients, they may still contain carbohydrates.
  •  Don’t forget that sugar alcohols are also high in carbohydrates and calories: Products containing xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol are not necessarily low in sugar and calories.


Fat-free products are not necessarily healthy

  • Fat-free products may contain carbohydrates: Compare food labels of fat-free products with standard products before deciding to buy. In some cases, low-fat products may contain more carbohydrates.
  • Consider healthier fats: Polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats are a better choice because they help lower cholesterol.
  • Avoid saturated fats: Consumption of trans and saturated fats increases the risk of heart disease.

Sample label for macaroni & cheese

What is free food?

Free food refers to a food or drink that contains less than 20 calories or less than 5 grams of carbohydrates per serving.


How to calculate?

  • Consider serving sizes in reading food labels: serving sizes on the food label are different from serving sizes on the meal plan. If you eat twice the serving size listed on the label, it means you duplicate the calories, fat, carbohydrates, and other ingredients.
  • Note the daily calorie goals: Consider the percentage of Daily Value on food labels. This percentage tells you how much of a specific nutrient you get in one serving of food based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. Accordingly, 5% or less is considered low, and 20% or more is considered high. Look for foods that are low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium but high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

If your doctor has considered less or more than 2,000 calories a day, you should adjust this percentage accordingly.


What are the 6 steps to reading food labels?

Step 1: Examine serving sizes and calorie counts per serving.

The serving size determines all of the information on a food label. Keep in mind that one serving may be significantly smaller than you believe. For example, if you eat two portions, you’ve consumed twice as many calories, fat, and salt.

Step 2: Examine the fat content

Examine the overall quantity of fat as well as the kind. The majority of the fats you consume should be polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Saturated fat intake has been related to heart disease. Try restricting your saturated fat intake to less than 10% of your total calories. Trans fat is added to meals to increase shelf stability. However, it has also been related to heart disease. Trans fat can be found in crackers, biscuits, and vegetable-based spreads. Trans fat consumption should be kept to a minimum, although no maximum tolerable level has been identified.

Trans fat is frequently reported as zero on the nutrition information label, despite being present in the meal. If an ingredient contains less than half a gram per serving, food makers may report it as zero; if you don’t know what to look for, this concealed trans fat may mount up over a day. Look for the phrase hydrogenated or partly hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list. 

Step 3: Determine the cholesterol content.

High cholesterol levels have been related to heart disease. Cholesterol is found in all animal products. Aim for no more than 300 milligrams (mg) each day.

Step 4: Check the sodium levels (salt)

Sodium is found in salt. High blood pressure is linked to high salt consumption. Aim for no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (approximately 1 teaspoon of salt). Look for meals high in potassium, which helps offset some of salt’s effects on blood pressure.

Step 5: Determine the total amount of carbs and sugar.

Total carbs are all of the carbohydrates in a portion of food. Therefore, ensure that most carbs do not come from added sugars. First, examine the nutrition information label to establish the overall quantity of sugars compared to carbs. Next, make sure you check the ingredient list to determine whether the sugar is naturally occurring (like in fruit) or added (like in most cereals). It is suggested that added sugars account for no more than 25% of total calories.

Step 6: Check the fiber

Fiber is essential for digestive and cardiovascular health. Choosing whole grains, fruits, and vegetables rich in fiber is a good way to get more fiber in your diet. Choose goods that include higher dietary fiber (5 grams or more).


Let’s sum up …

If food content claims have misled you, know that you are not alone. Deciding to make healthier food choices by reading food labels is really difficult. This decision may be even more tricky if you have diabetes.

The Health & Care Professional Network, with more than ten years of experience in providing a comprehensive home health care program, assists diabetics in terms of treatment and diet at their place of residence.

In this blog, we tried to answer the frequently asked questions that most of our clients face. Feel free to get in touch with us.


  1. Angela says:

    Not even I use the data to manage my mom’s diet, but I use them to control my sugar intake

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