It’s important to understand the food label of a product so that you are able to distinguish between unhealthy and healthier options. 

1. Read the nutrition information table

This table lists how much of each nutrient it contains. All nutrients are listed in two columns – per 100g and per serving. 

The 100g column is great to use to easily compare similar products because serving sizes may differ; this way you are comparing apples-for-apples. 

The per serving column tells you how much of each nutrient and energy (kilojoules) you’ll consume if you consume that suggested serving. Be careful here because the suggested serving is not always the same as the packaging size. For example, the suggested serving on a 500ml bottle of sugary drink is often only around 250ml, half of the packaging size.

With having diabetes, the main nutrients to look at are carbohydrate, sugar, and dietary fibre. 

Carbohydrates are either listed as total carbohydrates or glycaemic carbohydrates.

Total carbohydrates include fibre and glycaemic carbohydrates exclude fibre. Most labels now show glycaemic carbohydrates since fibre is not absorbed into the bloodstream and therefore should not be included in the carbohydrate count.

It’s important to know the amount of carbohydrate in the product you are eating so that you can identify whether it’s suitable for your glucose tolerance level. 

Most people can only tolerate a maximum of 30g of carbohydrates at a meal and 15g of carbohydrates at a snack. Some can tolerate much less. See Glucose tolerance.

Total sugar includes sugar that is naturally found in the food, such as lactose which is milk sugar found in dairy products, plus sugar that has been added by the manufacturers. Either way, the Society for Endocrinology, Metabolism, and Diabetes in SA (SEMDSA) recommends limiting all sugar to no more than 5% of total energy intake per day. Five percent of total energy would be roughly 25g of sugar per day. Low sugar products contain less than 5g of sugar per 100g.

Although it’s important to know how much sugar is in the product, it is the total carbohydrate that will be necessary to determine glycaemic tolerance.

Dietary fibre has numerous health benefits. It can help to reduce the risk of heart diseases, diabetes, certain type of cancers, and help with weight and appetite control. It can also lower the glycaemic index of foods. The recommended daily intake is 25g for women and 38g for men. Aim for 3g or more per serving on a food label and always include high fibre food items on your shopping list, such as whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, lentils, beans, fruit and vegetables.

2. Read the list of ingredients

Ingredients are always listed in order of weight, where the ingredients used in the greatest amounts are listed first, followed by those used in smaller amounts. 

Often the first three ingredients listed on the label make up the largest portion of the food item. 

Below are some sneaky words for sugar to look out for: brown sugar, concentrated fruit juice, corn syrup, dextrose, treacle, fructose, glucose, glucose syrup, golden syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt, malt extract, maltose, isomaltose, maltodextrin, maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar, cane sugar.

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