Written by Gianina Padula, Reviewed by Diana Licalzi, MS, RD, CDE
When you are first diagnosed with pre- or type 2 diabetes, it can feel overwhelming to navigate the suggested changes to your diet. Food shopping is no longer simply a decision about what brand to buy, but it now also requires you to make judgments about ingredient levels. These can include the amount of sugar, sodium, and fat in products. Luckily, we are here to simplify the nutrition label for you if you have pre- or type 2 diabetes.
History of the Nutrition Label
Nutrition labels were first used in the late 1960’s when processed foods entered the market . The White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health decided that the FDA should develop a system that identified the nutritional qualities of food. And thus, the nutrition label was born.
The nutrition label as we know it today has undergone various enhancements throughout the years. The most recent ones include a larger font for the serving size and calories, actual amounts of vitamins (rather than just the % daily value), and the mandatory disclosure of added sugar.
The Nutrition Label Through A Diabetes Lens
Carbohydrates, Sugar, and Fiber
For those with type 2 diabetes, the most important aspects of the nutrition label would be the total amount of carbohydrates and sugar (specifically added sugar). You should also look at the ingredients list to check if the product includes mostly refined carbohydrates or complex carbohydrates. Foods high in complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, or vegetables are always a better choice than foods high in refined sugars.
The amount of added sugar in a product is a mandatory component of the most up-to-date version of the nutrition label. A good rule of thumb is to limit your added sugar to no more than 24g per day for women and 36g per day for men .
The nutrition label is not only helpful when deciding what foods to avoid. It can also be used to assess the positive attributes of foods. For those with type 2 diabetes, consuming a diet high in fiber can help with long term blood sugar control and weight management. Choosing foods that are higher in fiber can help you avoid blood sugar spikes because it slows digestion. If a food is high in carbohydrates yet contains a significant amount of fiber, your body will process it differently than a food with the same amount of carbohydrates but no fiber.
The daily fiber recommendation is 21-25 g per day for women and 30-38 g per day for men. This can be reached through a variety of foods, such as beans, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and more.
Fat and Sodium
Other important categories include total fat, saturated fat, and sodium. Statistics show that those who have been diagnosed with diabetes have an elevated risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol . Limiting your consumption of saturated fat and sodium can help to prevent this. Reference the percentages on the right side of the label next to each category to assess how much of the daily value each quantity represents. This will help keep you from overconsuming fat and sodium. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting sodium intake to 2,300 mg or less for a standard diet, and 1,500 mg or less for those with hypertension or prehypertension. As for saturated fat, we recommend aiming for less than 10-15 g per day when you have pre- or type 2 diabetes.
If a product seems high in total fat, consider whether those fats are saturated and trans fats, or if they are unsaturated. Commonly found in olives, avocado, nuts, and seeds, unsaturated fats are considered to be heart-healthy. Saturated and trans fats, on the other hand, raise cholesterol levels and insulin resistance, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
The Ingredients List
When looking at an ingredient list, it is important to know that the order of ingredients is significant. Ingredients appear on the label in order of quantity, from greatest to least. So, there would be a larger amount of the first listed ingredient compared to the very last ingredient on the list.
Prioritize heart-healthy, less processed ingredients like whole-wheat flour, soy, and oats. Choose products with monounsaturated fats — such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts, and seeds — rather than saturated or trans fats. Avoid products with excessive salt, added sugars, saturated fats, or hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated oils . Added sugar shows up in many guises: high fructose corn syrup, anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup solids, crystal dextrose, and more .
Due to the increased adoption of plant-based diets, many products are labeled “plant-based” or “vegan,” making it easier to identify foods that do not contain animal products. Although this can be a good starting point, just because something is labeled as plant-based or vegan does not mean that they are automatically a smart option for those with diabetes. Vegan products may still be high in refined carbohydrates, sodium, added sugar, and fat.
Pictured above is the typical vegan label on many packaged products. If it does not look exactly like this, it may also be some variation of a letter V surrounded by a circle or a leaf attached to the V.
The Take-Home Message
Navigating the nutrition label with type 2 diabetes will soon feel like second nature with these strategies. As you gain more experience reading labels, you will become more familiar over time with prioritizing certain categories and choosing products appropriate for your own individualized needs and goals.