FAQ: Sugar versus carbohydrate on food labels- what should I be looking for?

The value for carbohydrate on a food label tells you the total amount of carbs from both starches and sugars.  If you are watching your blood glucose and insulin levels, it is the total carbs that really matters.

If you have diabetes, spreading your carbohydrate intake over the day, avoiding large serves at one meal and eating a similar intake of carbohydrate from day to day will help in managing your blood glucose levels. If you take insulin it’s important to match your carbohydrate intake with your insulin doses.

An Accredited Practising Dietitian can provide you with individualised advice regarding your specific needs.

The sugar content on a food label doesn’t actually refer to added sugar, as many people believe, but tells you the total amount of sugar which includes both added sugars and those naturally occurring (e.g. lactose in milk products and fructose in fruit).  So dairy foods like plain milk and yoghurt, and foods containing fruit or dried fruit may appear to be high in sugar, but this is from the natural sugars these foods contain rather than added sugar.

In general, products with less than 5g of sugar per 100g are considered low in sugar but some healthy products may not fit into this category due to the naturally occurring sugars they contain – the ingredient list can help you in determining the source of sugar in a food product.

If a food is high in sugar and doesn’t contain fruit or milk products it should probably be left on the shelf!

It’s also important to realise that the sugar content of a food doesn’t predict the effect a food has on blood glucose or insulin levels.  In fact, the only way to know this is to know the glycemic index (GI) of a food (a measure of the rate of digestion and absorption of a food) – foods with a low GI will increase blood glucose levels more slowly than high GI foods and are a better choice for most people, particularly if you have diabetes or insulin resistance.  For more information on GI visit www.glycemicindex.com

FAQ: What is the difference between glycemic index and glycemic load?

Image courtesy of glycemicindex.com

While most people are now familiar with GI and the benefits of eating more low GI foods, the difference between glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) is something many people get confused about.

The GI is essentially a way of ‘ranking’ carbohydrate foods according to the speed at which they cause our blood glucose levels to rise and fall. High GI foods are those which are more quickly digested and absorbed while low GI foods break down more slowly, gradually releasing glucose into the bloodstream.

However the overall effect that a food has on blood glucose levels is dependent on both the nature (GI) of the carbohydrate it contains and the amount you eat (i.e. the grams of carbs).  Glycemic load takes both of these factors into account and is calculated by multiplying the GI of the food by the amount of carbohydrate per serve and then dividing by 100. For example an apple has a GI of 40 and contains 15 grams of carbohydrate so has a GL of 6 (40 x 15)/100.

While foods with a high carbohydrate content and those with higher GI values will generally have the highest GL, this also means that small amounts of a high GI food may have only modest effects on blood glucose levels while large amounts of a low GI food can still raise blood glucose and insulin levels significantly.

What this means in practice, is that there is no need to totally avoid foods that have a high GI but are low in carbohydrate and nutrient-dense – a good example of this would be watermelon. On the other hand, just because a food is low GI, it doesn’t mean you can eat as much as you like, particularly if you are watching your weight or your blood glucose or insulin levels. If you are choosing lower GI foods and being  mindful of portion sizes, then you are already taking GL into account.

FAQ: Is it better to eat vegetables raw or cooked?

It’s a good question and the answer is: it depends on the vegetable.

The way you cook your foods can certainly have a significant effect on the final nutrient content of your meal.  Overcooking can lead to a loss of many vitamins but at the same time there are some nutrients which are improved by cooking. For example, cooking carrots has been found to increase the availability of beta-carotene, the antioxidant that gives them their orange colour.

Steaming is one of the best ways to cook most vegetables as it requires a short cooking time and little water. Longer cooking times, boiling in a lot of water and higher temperatures can all lead to loss of nutrients, particularly vitamins B and C.

And while you might think it’s better not to cook your vegetables in fat, this isn’t always the case. For example, research has shown that the lycopene in tomatoes (an important antioxidant that gives them their red colour and which may protect against diseases such as heart disease and cancer) is best absorbed into our bodies when cooked together with a little fat, such as olive oil. This means that all your favourite Italian dishes like tomato-based pasta and ratatouille are a great way to enjoy the health benefits of tomatoes.

To optimise nutrition, include a variety of raw (such as salads) and lightly cooked (such as steamed or stir-fried) vegetables. Vegetable or herb-based sauces and marinades (such as salsa and pesto) are also a great way to build more nutrition into your meals.

Finally, don’t forget to choose a variety of different vegetables and salads each week, aiming to make your plate as colourful as possible.

Pin It on Pinterest