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

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