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Nutrition Label Reading: Check your Carbohydrates for Quality

Nina Ghamrawi, MS, RD, CDE
June 14, 2023
June 14, 2023

Have you ever heard of good carbs and bad carbs? In general, all carbs have a certain amount of starch or sugar that raises our blood glucose levels and gives us energy. Most carbohydrates are converted to glucose within about two hours or less of eating. But not all carbs are created equal.

Imagine this as simple carbohydrates

Think of it this way: carbohydrates are made of many molecules of sugar, all strung together like a chain of pearls. The simpler the food (things that are sugar or mostly sugar), the shorter the string of pearls and the less your body needs to work at breaking it down and absorbing it.

Imagine this as complex carbohydrates

High fiber foods, however, are like a string of pearls with many branches into other strings of pearls, all those little branches are difficult for your body to cut apart into individual pearls, or glucose, so breaking these sugars in high fiber foods is a slower process than starches or sugars. Therefore, it takes longer for these foods to raise glucose. This is why foods with fiber generally aid digestion - they go straight through us, and even though fiber is a type of carbohydrate, high fiber foods don't raise the blood sugars nearly as much as starchy foods since fibers are indigestible.

Reading the Label for Carbohydrates

As we discussed in "Demystifying the Nutrition Label" article, nutrition facts label provides good information of the nutrient contents of the food and help us choose, compare and monitor what we are eating.

For people who want to pay more attention on carbohydrates or are asked by healthcare providers to do so for their health condition, reading nutrition label for carbohydrates will be helpful.

Serving size is always the first thing to look at for a nutrition fact label. All the values below are based on that one serving.  

Total Carbohydrates

Total carbohydrates is the total amount of carbohydrates in one serving of this food and includes all the subcategories of dietary fiber, total sugar, sugar alcohol, starches, etc. If you are suggested to monitor your carbohydrates intake or do carbohydrates counting by your doctor or dietitian, total carbohydrates will be the main thing that you will look at on a nutrition label.  If you are advised to calculate net carbs, please read this article.

In carbohydrates counting, 1 Carbohydrate Exchange contains 15 grams carbohydrates. Take the nutrition label above as an example, total carbohydrates are 46 grams, which equal to about 3 carbohydrate exchanges (46 gram ÷ 15 gram/exchange ≈ 3 exchanges). Usually a healthy adult can have 3-4 carb exchanges for a meal and 1-2 carb exchanges for a snack. You can talk to your dietitian via Unified Care app to see what your specific need is.

Dietary Fiber

Dietary fiber is a carbohydrate that has minimal effect on blood sugar and can help with digestion, lower blood cholesterol level, gut health and reduce constipation. Food with 3 grams or more dietary fiber per labeled serving is consider a good source of fiber. The recommendation for fiber intake according to Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are:

Women should try to get 25 g of fiber per day, and men should try to get 38  grams fiber per day.

Total Sugar

Total sugar includes natural occurring sugars as well as added sugar.  Added sugar usually will be labeled in a subcategory below. As we discussed above, carbohydrates with more simple sugars could be digested and absorbed more quickly, thus affecting blood glucose more. When comparing two similar food products, aim for the one with higher dietary fiber and lower total sugar.  

Sugar Alcohol

Sugar alcohols are usually found naturally or commercially added to food as reduced-calorie sweetener. Sugar alcohols are usually end with "ol" and includes erythritol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, tagatose, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. Sugar alcohols have about half carbohydrates of sugar and thus have less impact on blood glucose. Excessive sugar alcohol intake could cause gas, bloating, diarrhea, and a general laxative effect in some individuals. Always test sugar alcohols in small amounts to see your tolerance.


Different carbohydrates have different impacts on blood glucose. Choosing food that are high in fiber and low in sugar will be helpful for better blood glucose control. Always read the nutrition fact label before buying or consuming a packaged food. Look at "Total Carbohydrates" if you are counting carbohydrates. You can always contact your care team via Unified Care app if you have any question about nutrition label reading or carbohydrate counting.

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