Food Labelling for Diabetes
by FoodMaestro | 14 June 2016
By: Rhiannon Lewis (Student Dietitian)
With so much information here’s a quick guide to understanding food labelling for diabetes.
Carbohydrate choices are important for controlling your blood sugar levels. There are two main types of carbohydrates (‘carbs’); starchy and sugary. Starchy carbs are foods like bread, pasta, rice, quinoa, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Sugary carbs are sweeter foods including fruit, jams, honey, syrups, nectars, molasses, milk and table sugar and take less time to reach your bloodstream. In essence, it is best for the diet to be made up of more starchy carbs and less sugary carbs as sugary carbs are more likely to cause those unwanted high blood sugar levels.
With so much information on food packaging it can be confusing. Focus on the ingredients list, front-of-pack nutrition label and back-of-pack nutrition label.
You can normally find the ingredients list on the back of the packet. The ingredients are listed in descending order based on weight so the ingredients most used in the recipe are listed first. This means you can see at a glance if the product is mostly made of carbs and also gives you an insight into which type- remember your food examples of starchy and sugary carbs above.
You may not see the word sugar in the ingredients list so surely it won’t have any sugary carbs? Be on the ball as there are many names for sugary ingredients. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself in time with the common ones to seek out those hidden sugars. As well as ingredients with sugar, honey, syrup, nectar and molasses in their name other names to look out for include glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, dextrose, maltodextrin, lactose, caramel, juices and sugar alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol).
The front-of-pack nutrition label is displayed as a block usually employing a traffic-light system. It tells you if there are high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) levels of energy in kJ or kcal, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in grams per portion. It also gives you the percentage of an average adult’s requirements that portion provides. Here you can spot the sugary carbs content at a glance.
The back-of-pack nutrition label is presented as a table. It is similar to the one on the front of the pack but provides further information on carbohydrate and protein content. The amounts are given per 100g/ml. This is very useful for comparing like-for-like products per 100g/ml based on the total ‘carbohydrate’ content (both starchy and sugary) and not just the ‘sugar’ content (just sugary carbs)- remember, both types of carbs can raise your blood sugar but sugary carbs do this more quickly.
Food marketing labels
Marketing labels of ‘sugar-free’ or ‘no sugar added’ do not guarantee zero carbs – it is referring to low sugary carb content of less than 0.5g sugar per serving but not necessarily to low starchy carb content. Using the back-of-pack label will allow you to seek out true carb content. So if the carb content between an original or sugar-free product is very similar, choose a product based on the taste or price you prefer.
Also, be aware of a couple of common pitfalls. Firstly, low-sugar products (including products marketed for diabetics) may have high fat content as fat may be used to replace some of the sugar. High fat is not heart healthy. On the flip side, fat-free products may have high sugar content. Do not fear these products; your new skill of reading food labels will guide your judgement.
The Food Maestro app
The Food Maestro app can give you a helping hand to find suitable versions of your favourite foods. You can filter out products with added sugar by using the ‘Sugars’ filter in the ingredients section of your profile (you can even choose the type of added sugar you want to avoid). Then search for a product, such as breakfast cereal. The natural sugar content will also be described in number of teaspoons per 100g acting like a part of a front-of-pack nutrition label for easy comparison within the list. You still get to use your food label reading skills if you click on a product. This will reveal the ingredients list and the total carbohydrate information you would find on the back-of-pack nutrition label.
In summary, it is important to watch the amount of sugary carbs in your diet but don’t forget that starchy carbs need to be watched too as part of the bigger picture. Ingredient lists help you see if carbs are a main ingredient, front-of-pack nutrition labels let you compare sugar content between products at a glance and back-of-pack nutrition labels let you compare the overall carb contents to make a balanced decision. All the while, the Food Maestro app can help guide you along the way!