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Deciphering food labels, counting carbs, counting sugar and regulating insulin to suit my blood sugar levels is a full-time job and one that I thought I was doing alright at, until recently, when I walked into my local health food store.

There I was, browsing the nutritional label of one product from the shelf, when I struck up a conversation with one of the attendants and she made a comment that threw me.

“You have to count the sugar content because you’re diabetic,” she said.

I automatically replied, “No, I count the total carbohydrate, I don’t just focus on the sugar.”

But then I had to stop and think for an minute. Was that right, or have I been doing it wrong all these years? The thought left me puzzled and I went home pondering this some more.

On the hunt for an answer, I contacted one of my former colleague nutritionist and diabetes project officer, Karis Ramsay, to see if she could shed some light on this for me. Low and behold she could and referred me to several sites. I found the information really useful, hence this post.

The Mayo Clinic lists a range of tips to help people with diabetes to better understand food labels – thank Mayo! Some of the points that I found particularly useful were:

Look at total carbohydrates, not just sugar. Evaluate the grams of total carbohydrates — which includes sugar, complex carbohydrates and fiber — rather than only the grams of sugar. If you zero in on sugar content, you could miss out on nutritious foods naturally high in sugar, such as fruit and milk. And you might overdo foods with no natural or added sugar, but plenty of carbohydrates, such as certain cereals and grains (source: Mayo Clinic).

Sugar-free doesn’t mean carbohydrate-free. Sugar-free foods may play a role in your diabetes diet, but remember it is equally important to consider carbohydrates, as well. A sugar-free label means that one serving has less than 0.5 gram of sugar. When you’re choosing between standard products and their sugar-free counterparts, compare the food labels. If the sugar-free product has noticeably fewer carbohydrates, the sugar-free product might be the better choice. But if there’s little difference in carbohydrate grams between the two foods, let taste — or price — be your guide (source: Mayo Clinic).

No sugar added, but not necessarily no carbohydrates. The same caveat applies to products sporting a “no sugar added” label. These foods don’t contain high-sugar ingredients, and no sugar is added during processing or packaging, but they may still be high in carbohydrates (source: Mayo Clinic).

Sugar alcohols contain carbohydrates and calories, too. Likewise, products that contain sugar alcohols — such as sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol — aren’t necessarily low in carbohydrates or calories (source: Mayo Clinic).

If you’re after more info about sugar alcohols and how to count the carbohydrate, then visit my earlier post Sweeteners Explained.

So thankfully I breathed a sigh of relief after reading this, as it looks like I was doing things right all along.

But it goes to show that after nearly 30 years with diabetes, some days I still find myself questioning things and reverting back to basics.

Reading food labels is definitely an art-form, and I have spent countless hours standing in supermarket isles reading the backs of numerous food packets.

Thankfully, this hasn’t been a waste of time as it seems total carb count is definitely the way to go if you have diabetes.

Happy shopping and happy eating!

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