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Reading food labels: Tips if you have diabetes

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Jun 25, 2021.

When you live with 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, especially those that are less processed, such as whole-wheat flour, soy and oats. Monounsaturated fats — such as olive, canola or peanut oils; nuts; and seeds — promote heart health, too.
  • Avoid unhealthy ingredients, such as excessive salt or added sugars, saturated fats, or 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 include sugar, such as added sugars; complex carbohydrates; and fiber — rather than only the grams of sugar. If you focus on sugar content, you could miss out on nutritious foods naturally containing sugar, such as fruit and milk. And you might overdo foods with no natural or added sugar but plenty of processed or refined 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.
Sample Nutrition Facts label

Serving size: Serving sizes are listed in standard measurements, such as cups or pieces. Similar foods usually have similar serving sizes, so you can compare them more easily. The label also includes the number of servings per container to help you calculate the calories and nutrients in the entire package. Be sure to check the serving size against how much you actually eat. If a serving is 16 crackers but you eat 32, that doubles the calories, sugar, fat and other nutrients you eat. Calories: The number of calories listed shows the calories in one serving of the food. You can use this information to compare similar products and choose the one that is lower in calories or fits in your calorie needs. Nutrients and Daily Value: The label must list the amounts of total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium that are in one serving. The Daily Value (DV) tells you how close you are to meeting your daily requirements for each nutrient. It's based on a typical 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. The DV can help you track whether you're getting enough — or too much — of all the nutrients you need in a day. Nutrients to increase: The typical American diet is low in fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium. They're listed on the label to encourage Americans to include more of these important nutrients in their diet. Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2016

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 that it's equally important to consider carbohydrates as well. A sugar-free label means that one serving has less than 0.5 grams 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. Also check the other ingredients and calories to make a good healthy choice.

  • No sugar added, but not necessarily no carbohydrates. The same caveat applies to products sporting a "no sugar added" label. These foods don't contain high-sugar ingredients, and no sugar is added during processing or packaging, but they 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.

Beware of fat-free products

Per gram, fat has more than twice the calories of carbohydrates or protein. If you're trying to lose weight, fat-free foods might sound like just the ticket. But don't be fooled by "fat-free" food labels.

  • Fat-free can still have carbohydrates. Fat-free foods can have more carbohydrates and contain nearly as many calories as the standard version of the same food. The lesson? You guessed it! Compare food labels for fat-free and standard products carefully before you make a decision.

And remember that the amount of total fat listed on a food label doesn't tell the whole story. Look for a breakdown of types of fat.

  • Choose healthier fats. Although still high in calories, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are better choices, as they can help lower your cholesterol and protect your heart.
  • Limit unhealthy fats. Saturated and trans fats raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease.

Know what counts as a free food

Just as food labels can help you avoid certain foods, food labels can also serve as your guide to free foods. A free food is one with:

  • Fewer than 20 calories a serving
  • Less than 5 grams of carbohydrates a serving

Do the math

  • Pay attention to serving sizes. The serving sizes listed on food labels may be different from the serving sizes in your meal plan. If you eat twice the serving size listed on the label, you also double the calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein, sodium and other ingredients.
  • Consider your daily calorie goals. The same goes for the Daily Value listed on food labels. This percentage, which is based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, helps you gauge how much of a specific nutrient one serving of food contains, compared with recommendations for the whole day. A low amount is 5% or less; 20% or more is high. Look for foods with fats, cholesterol and sodium on the low end of the Daily Value; keep fiber, vitamins and minerals on the high end.

    If your doctor or registered dietitian recommends more or less than 2,000 calories a day, you may need to adjust the percentage accordingly — or simply use the percentage as a general frame of reference.

The bottom line

What you eat is up to you. Use food labels to help meet your healthy-eating goals.

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