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Nutrition Facts label

Reading Nutrition Labels for Total Carbohydrate

April 9, 2015
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I have been compensated for my time by McNeil Nutritionals, LLC, the maker of SPLENDA® Sweetener Products. All statements and opinions are my own. I have pledged to Blog With Integrity, asserting that the trust of my readers and the blogging community is vitally important to me.

Reading the Nutrition Facts label that appears on most packaged foods gives you useful and accurate nutrition data at your fingertips. Regulations for the current iteration of the Nutrition Facts label were implemented in 1994 and are enforced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the labels on meat and poultry products.

Over two decades, the only major changes to what’s listed on the panel have been the addition of trans fat and the requirement to list information about certain food allergens in products.

Do keep your eyes and ears open. Proposed regulations by the FDA to overhaul the Nutrition Facts label are in process. Experts estimate that due to the lengthy review and public comment process, it could be years before a new Nutrition Facts label sees the light of day.

This blog delves into the nutrients that are listed under the Total Carbohydrate section of the Nutrition Facts label.

How to Read Nutrition Facts Labels: Servings Per Container and Serving Size

Serving Size and Servings Per Container. The nutrition data on each label is per serving of the food or beverage. Serving sizes for nearly 150 categories of foods are standardized and must be used by food manufacturers.

How to Read Nutrition Facts Labels: Total Carbohydrate and Carb Counting

Total Carbohydrate: This provides the total grams of carbohydrate in one serving of the food. Our foods contain three types of carbohydrate – starches, sugars, and fibers. Many foods contain, or are largely composed of, carbohydrate, from vegetables, to fruits, starches, whole grains, legumes and dairy foods. If you have diabetes and use carbohydrate counting to plan your meals and balance your glucose lowering medication, then put your laser focus on this line. The grams of dietary fiber and sugars are accounted for under Total Carbohydrate. They’re indented and not in bold print.

How to Read Nutrition Facts Labels: What is Dietary Fiber?

Dietary Fiber*: Fiber is a nutrient and it’s required on most Nutrition Facts labels. That’s not the case for whole grains, which are a component of foods, not a nutrient. That’s why you don’t find whole grains accounted for on the Nutrition Facts label.

Dietary Fiber is the portion of plant-based foods that we don’t digest. Actually the plural of the term, dietary fibers, is more accurate because our foods contain hundreds of different fibers. Some fibers help with digestion and regularity. Others may help improve blood fats (lipid levels). Yet others may play a role in weight control and appetite.

How to Read Nutrition Facts Labels: Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar

Sugars: The grams of sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts are the total of naturally present sugars and the added sugars. The definition for sugars, according to the FDA, is all one- and two-unit sugars. A one-unit sugar, for example, is glucose or fructose. Examples of two-unit sugars, is sucrose, made up of glucose and fructose, or lactose, made up of galactose and glucose. Two-unit sugars are commonly found in some foods, like fruit and milk.

Added Sugars: The Nutrition Facts label in its present format doesn’t let you know whether the sugars are from natural or added sources. As highlighted by the FDA, this is an area that might change as the Nutrition Facts label is updated in the future, but it will be hotly debated before a decision is made. In the meantime, you can gain insight into the sources of sugars in a food by reading through the ingredient list (ingredients are listed in descending order by weight used in the product).

These are a few ingredients that are sources of added sugars: corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, maltose, sucrose, honey, molasses, agave syrup, raw sugar, syrup, malt sugar, or malt syrup.

If you or a loved one has diabetes you may think that the count of the grams of sugars on the label deserves priority attention. That’s not true because the grams of sugars are accounted for within the grams of total carbohydrate. Stay focused on the Total Carbohydrate count if you’re counting carbohydrate grams for meal planning.

How to Read Nutrition Facts Labels: What are Other Carbohydrates?

Other Sources of Carbohydrate beneath Total Carbohydrate: A food manufacturer may voluntarily list a few other sources of carbohydrate on the Nutrition Facts label. Under Dietary Fibers you may see two types of fibers - insoluble and soluble. Under Total Carbohydrate you may see the term sugar alcohols, also called polyols*. Polyols are a group of carbohydrate-based ingredients that can replace sugar in sugar-free foods such as candy, cookies, and ice creams. Common names are: isomalt, sorbitol, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, and xylitol.

Listing these other sources of carbohydrate goes from voluntary to being required if health or nutrition claims are made on the product related to these ingredients.

Conclusion: Pay Attention to Total Carbohydrate When Carb Counting

In conclusion, if your focus is counting those grams of carbohydrate to manage your glucose levels, pay the most attention to the product’s serving size and the total grams of carbohydrate per serving. Then pay careful attention to your serving sizes.

Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, BC-ADM, is a nationally recognized dietitian and diabetes educator who applies nearly 35 years of expertise as an author, freelance writer, media spokesperson, consultant and diabetes educator. Hope notes:
“Healthy eating today is one tough job! The good news is simple tweaks in your food choices and how you prepare foods can often set you on a path to healthier eating. A step in the right direction for a long and healthy life.”

* To keep you up to date, the current Nutrition Therapy Recommendations for the Management of Adults with Diabetes suggest that it’s no longer necessary for most people to subtract the grams of dietary fiber or sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrate count if they’re carbohydrate counting. Reference: Evert A, Boucher J, et al. Nutrition therapy recommendations for the management of adults with diabetes. Diabetes Care: 2013;36(11):3821-3842.

For more tips about managing diabetes, visit the Diabetes Management section of this blog.

April 9, 2015  |  POSTED BY: Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, BC-ADM  |  IN: Diabetes Management

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