Eating healthfully and following a meal plan are key components of good diabetes care whether you use oral medicines, insulin, or diet and exercise to manage your diabetes. Knowing how to read a food label can help you choose healthful foods, figure out portion sizes, count carbohydrates, limit sodium or fat, and keep track of calories. Understanding how to use the information found on food labels can also help you to choose foods that meet your vitamin and mineral requirements. In short, being “label-able” can take the guesswork out of healthful eating.
A majority of the prepared foods you find in your local grocery store are required to have a nutrition label. Nutrition labeling of most foods is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which identifies the nutrients that must be listed on food labels, other nutrients that may be listed, allowed health claims, and standard portion sizes. The Act also defines terminology commonly used on labels such as “light,” “low-fat,” and “sodium free.”
Raw, unprocessed fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, and poultry are not required to have nutrition labels, though voluntary labeling is strongly encouraged, and 70% of U.S. food stores provide this information, either by posting it near fresh food displays or by labeling foods such as meats that are packaged in the store. Other foods that are not required to bear nutrition labels include food prepared for immediate consumption such as restaurant, cafeteria, and airplane food; ready-to-eat food prepared primarily on-site, such as bakery store items; foods prepared by some small businesses; and medical foods (special foods prescribed by a physician to manage a disease or health condition). Restaurants that make health claims for certain foods on their menus or in advertising are required to provide nutrition information for those foods.
Nutritional and herbal supplements have Nutrition Facts labels similar to those on packaged foods, but they are regulated by the FDA under a different set of guidelines, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Under this act, supplement manufacturers are responsible for making sure dietary supplements are safe before they are marketed and that label information is truthful and not misleading. The FDA has strict guidelines that regulate the types of information and health or nutrition claims allowed on supplement labels.
Nutrition information on food labels can be found in several locations. These include the Nutrition Facts panel, the ingredients list, and other areas of the label where health claims may be displayed.
The Nutrition Facts panel
Your best source of nutrition information is the Nutrition Facts panel, where manufacturers provide serving size information, quantities of specific nutrients, and percent Daily Values (%DV). Nutrient information required on all food labels includes total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Starting in 2006, disclosure of trans fatty acid (a type of fat) content is required on food labels, though it may not show up on all food products right away.
Nutrient information allowed but not required on nutrition labels includes calories from saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, potassium, soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, sugar alcohols and other carbohydrates, percent of vitamin A present as beta-carotene (a nutrient found in plant foods that is converted to vitamin A in the body), and other essential vitamins and minerals (those the body cannot make at all or in sufficient quantities to meet its daily needs). If a health claim is made anywhere on the food package about a nutrient that is allowed but not required, that nutrient must be included in the Nutrition Facts panel. No nutrients other than those specifically required or allowed are permitted on the Nutrition Facts panel.