Understanding Food Labels

Understanding Food Labels

It’s super important to be able to read and understand the labels on food so we can make an educated decision on how the food will impact our health. Here is my guide to understanding the carbohydrate content of food.

When I work will clients, the aim is always to keep their blood sugars as stable as possible. This can be a difficult challenge because there are many things that influence how YOUR body deals with blood sugars. However what we do know is that poor blood sugar control results in common health conditions including:

  • Metabolic syndrome

  • Cardiovascular Disease

  • Lethargy and Adrenal Fatigue

  • Type 2 Diabetes

  • PCOS

  • Brain fogginess and inability to focus

  • Weight gain, fat storage, difficulty losing weight – for most people, excess weight is from high subcutaneous fat storage; the fat in IR is generally stored in and around abdominal organs.

  • Increased blood cholesterol levels

  • Increased blood pressure; many people with hypertension have elevated insulin levels due to insulin resistance

  • Therefore my goal is always to improve health by stabilizing blood glucose levels and the health improvements tend to be significant.

    So what does this have to do with Carbohydrates in your food? Carbohydrates are the primary food source that increases blood sugar levels because they are readily converted to glucose in the body. Protein does a little, but not drastically and fat doesn’t increase blood sugar levels. Have a look at the graph below and see how within an hour of eating food, the effect it has on blood sugar levels.


    Our body is pretty clever though, and it does convert protein and fat into glucose via a pathway call gluconeogenesis. But the body only makes glucose if it needs to and for the most part, people will eat enough carbohyrdate. This is why carbs aren’t an essential nutrient because our bodies can make them!

    This is why understanding the carb content of your food is essential for good health.

    Nutrition Labels

    Here is an example of a nutrition label:

    Total Carbohydrates - Shown in Grams:

    It gives you the total number of usable carbs per serving. In the example given above, this is 25g per ¾ cup serving.

    The most important thing you need to take away from this is that carbohydrates, once digested, are broken down into simple sugar molecules to be utilised by the body. This means that no matter what form you eat carbs in, eventually they will rise your blood sugar levels and produce the same insulin response. Therefore, if you are someone who is sensitive to carbs, who is diabetic or insulin resistant (which is a large number of the population these days) - this is the most important number to look at. You want this number to be low.

    Types of carbs included in the total carbohydrate number are starches, complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, added sugars, and non-digestible additives.

    The subheadings under Total Carbohydrate are Dietary Fiber, sometimes broken down into Soluble and Insoluble Fiber; Sugars; and sometimes categories for Sugar Alcohols and/or Other Sugars. The total of these numbers will not always equal the total carbs because some starches — types of carbs often used as binders or thickeners — aren’t required to be listed on food labels.

    Dietary Fiber - Shown in Grams:

    Gives you the amount of fiber per serving. Dietary fiber is indigestible, usually passes through your intestinal tract without being absorbed, doesn’t raise your blood sugar levels, and slows down the impact of the other carbs in a meal. Subtracting fiber from the total carbs gives you the number of net carbs – the ones that do affect your blood sugar.

    In the example, this is 5g per ¾ cup serving.

    Therefore: 25g total - 5g fibre = 20g carbs per serving that will impact your blood sugar levels.

    Sugars - Shown in Grams:

    Gives you the total amount of carbohydrate from naturally occurring sugars like lactose (milk sugar) and fructose (fruit sugar) PLUS any added sugars like high fructose corn syrup, brown and white sugar, cane juice, etc. Added sugars are the sugars and syrups added to foods during processing or preparation.  They add calories but little or no nutrients.

    You can determine if there are a lot of added sugars by checking the product’s ingredients label. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity so if added sugars are listed in the top three or four ingredients you can guess that the bulk of the sugars are added, not naturally occurring.

    Here is a list of all the different names for sugars…. there are MANY!

    So, how many carbs should I have? 

    My recommendations are as follows:

    1. Limit processed and packaged foods. This includes the obvious stuff but also includes breads, pastas, rice, grains etc - these are all processed. By limiting these, you instantly cut out unneeded carbs and sugars.

    2. If you choose to eat something from a packet be aware - if it’s not animal protein or fat - then it most likely high in carbs. Eating some carbs is not bad, we just don’t want to eat too much of it. So keep portions small AND serve with healthy animal protein and good quality natural fats to help keep your blood sugar levels more stable.

    3. If you choose to eat a packaged food high in carbs, do it knowing what you are eating. A teaspoon of sugar is equal to 4g carbs. In our example, each serving has 20g of carbs = 5 teaspoons of sugar. Are you happy to consume that much sugar? Will your body like it? If you do that often, what will happen to your health.

    4. If you are someone who likes tracking their food and numbers, I recommend no more than 100g a day of total carbs if weight loss if your goal, aim for 80g. Between 100-150g a day for someone in good health and wanting to maintain weight. Disclaimer, many people are carb sensitive or insulin resistant - you may need to keep your carbs lower than 80g. Everyone is different so you may need to experiment.

    What are the best carbs to eat?
    The best source of carbs is always going to be vegetables - eat them at every meal! Fruit is also a good source of carbs, especially for children.

    If you have any questions about this blog, please email me at sara@simpletastynutrition.co.nz or contact me through my contact form!

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