Decoding food labels

I wrote this article and first published it on my website on 28 Jan 2016. It was a way to help people avoid being tricked by manufacturers or confused by nutrition labels. The easiest approach is to keep well away from highly processed or packaged food as much as possible. Most of it will be high in sugar, high in carbs and will contain less-than-desirable ingredients.

Having said that, there are some healthy packaged foods (such as nuts, olives, live cultured yoghurt etc) that you may want to buy, but it will still require careful reading of ingredient labels and nutrition panels to choose products that are low in sugar, low in carbs and don’t contain any unnecessary nasty ingredients.

If you’re going to regain control over what you put in your body, start by learning how to read nutrition labels .. oh, and you will probably need a magnifying glass to do so!

  1. Check the sugar content. If it contains less than 5g sugar per 100g, it can be considered low in sugar.
  2. Check the carbohydrate content. Less than 5g net carbohydrate is considered low-carb and happily sits on the Green List. Between 6 and 25g carbs per 100g is considered moderate carbs and is on the Orange List (and should be eaten in moderation). Anything over 25g carbs per 100g is high in carbs and should be avoided if you’re Banting or following an LCHF lifestyle.
  3. Consider your serving size. This will influence how much of the product you can eat to remain within your chosen sugar or carbohydrate limit.
  4. Check the ingredients. Ingredients are listed from most to least. Even a milligram difference may mean a ‘less desirable’ ingredient can appear below ‘more desirable’ ones. And if there are two or more ingredients in the same amount, the manufacturer choses which to list first.
  5. Be on the look out for the multiple ways of referring to sugar. Manufacturers can avoid putting ‘sugar’ as the first ingredient by using a combination of sugars, sweeteners and/or artificial sweeteners in their products that will then appear scattered throughout the ingredient list masking the fact that the number one ingredient is actually ‘sugar’ (in all its forms).

Carbohydrates

There are a number of terms used to refer to carbohydrates on food labelling and some mean different things.

  • Total Carbohydrates’ is the amount of carbohydrate, including sugars and fibre (and any other ‘unavailable’ carbohydrate).
  • Net Carbohydrates’ or ‘Available Carbohydrates’ refer to the amount of carbohydrate, including the sugars but excluding the fibre (and any other ‘unavailable’ carbohydrate). In some countries, it may be referred to as ‘glycemic carbohydrate’ or ‘nutritive carbohydrate’ (see Mendosa, 2004).

So what does this mean in terms of understanding food labels?

In many countries, including the US and Canada, products are labelled using the term ‘Total Carbohydrates’. This includes fibre and any other unavailable carbohydrate, so you’ll need to subtract the amount of fibre from the amount given.

For example, the ‘Total Carbohydrates’ shown in the following table is 13.2g.
From this amount, you need to subtract the dietary fibre (8.8g).
This gives you a total of 4.4g ‘net carbohydrates’ or ‘available carbohydrates’ (ie low carb).

NUTRITION INFORMATION
100g NET, 10 serves per package
Serving size: 10g
Average quantity: Per serve Per 100g
ENERGY 252.9kJ 2529kJ
PROTEIN 2g 20g
FAT, TOTAL 5.5g 55.2g
– SATURATED 0.4g 3.6g
TOTAL CARBOHYDRATE 0.4g 13.2g
– DIETARY FIBRE 0.9g 8.8g
– SUGARS 0.4g 4.4g
SODIUM <1mg 5mg

In Europe and Oceania, the amount of carbohydrate on nutrition panels, refererd to as ‘carbohydrate’, is acutally the ‘net’ or ‘available’ carbs. That is, the fibre and any other unavailable carbohydrate has already been substracted from the carb value, so just use this figure, as in the following table:

NUTRITION INFORMATION
100g NET, 10 serves per package
Serving size: 10g
Average quantity: Per serve Per 100g
ENERGY 252.9kJ 2529kJ
PROTEIN 2g 20g
FAT, TOTAL 5.5g 55.2g
– SATURATED 0.4g 3.6g
CARBOHYDRATE 0.4g 4.4g
– SUGARS 0.4g 4.4g
DIETARY FIBRE 0.9g 8.8g
SODIUM <1mg 5mg

Sugar alcohols

A word of warning regarding the use of alternate sweeteners and sugar alcohols:

According to Mendosa (2004), several manufacturers of low-carb products exclude glycerin(e), sugar alcohols, polydextrose from the ‘net carbohydrates’ because they regard them as having ‘a negligible effect on blood glucose … or blood sugar’.

Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate called ‘polyols’ and will affect some people but not others. Manufacturers must list the amount of sugar alcohol in their products as they can still spike blood sugar. You should estimate that half the sugar in a sugar alcohol will be absorbed (see Diabetes Education Online, n.d).

The reason for this is that some people metabolise polyols (sugar alcohol) as sugar; others lack the digestive enzymes to do so and therefore do not experience a spike in blood sugar. However, it is for this very reason, that this latter group of people may be more likely to experience a gastointestinal reaction (Diabetes Education Online, n.d).

For more on alternate sweeteners, see this post on sugar alcohols.

References

Diabetes Education Online (n.d.) ‘Counting Sugar Alcohols’, article on Diabetes Education Online, Diabetes Teaching Center at the University of California, San Francisco, http://dtc.ucsf.edu/living-with-diabetes/diet-and-nutrition/understanding-carbohydrates/counting-carbohydrates/learning-to-read-labels/counting-sugar-alcohols/, last accessed 28 Jan 2016.

Mendosa, D. (2004). ‘Can You Really Exclude Sugar Alcohols, Glycerin, Polydextrose, and Fiber?’, article posted 13 Feb 2004 (updated 13 May 2005) on Mendose.com: Helping Defeat Diabetes since 1995http://www.mendosa.com/netcarbs.htm, last accessed 28 Jan 2016.

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