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Understanding Food Labels:Carbohydrates

Food Labels part 2

Carbohydrates: The good, the bad and the ugly

Approximately 50 years ago low-fat diets were promoted due to what has turned out to be unjustified claims that the fat in one’s diet was responsible for heart disease. This led the food industry to strip as much fat as possible from food wherever possible. Foods that weren’t high in fat even got on the bandwagon by advertising their product is heart healthy because it was low in fat. Healthy foods like yogurt, milk, cheeses, peanut butter to name a few were being stripped of the fat content. The food companies knew removing fat was going to have a negative impact on how the products tasted. To solve this dilemma sugar in varying forms was added to the products that were being stripped of fat to improve the taste. Due to palpability, sugar was showing up in other food products as well. One that boggles my mind is Jerky. It amazes me that sugars in varying forms are added to this product. When you start paying closer attention to the food labels, I think you will be shocked by the number of added sugar(s) in your diet. Also, a decade earlier high fructose corn syrup was discovered. This is significantly cheaper to produce and was becoming the number one means for sweetening food and drinks.

The purpose of this article is to examine how to read food labels and not to explore the vast number of health issues related to sugar and sweeteners. Without going down the sugar rabbit hole be aware the average American consumes well over 100 pounds of sugar a year. 100 years ago, that number was 16 pounds a year. (ref 1) Future articles will address the health consequences that have paralleled the rise and over consumption of sugar in our society and around the world.

What are carbohydrates and how are they used

Carbohydrates are an energy source that provides fuel for our body and brain. Simply stated, carbohydrates are sugar molecules and are one of the three macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrate) that make up the food we eat and drink. Foods and drinks that contain carbohydrates are fruits, grains, vegetables, products made with flour and sugar to name a few. Carbohydrates have been described as simple and complex. Examples of simple carbohydrates are glucose, fructose, lactose and sucrose. Sucrose is table sugar and is made up of glucose and fructose molecules. Lactose is milk sugar. They are called simple carbohydrates because they break down quickly during digestion. Complex carbohydrates are known as starches. They are called complex because they are made up of multiple glucose molecules and take longer to breakdown during digestion. An example of a starch is a potato. During digestion the starches are broken down into glucose. The glucose travels through your blood stream to provide energy for working muscles, your brain and other vital organs. Glucose can be turned into glycogen for storage in your muscles and liver for energy when you are active. Once the glycogen stores are full the excess glucose will be stored as fat.

When you eat carbohydrates, glucose enters your blood stream and will cause the pancreas to release the hormone insulin. One of insulin’s roles is to remove glucose from the blood. One way insulin removes glucose from the blood is increasing your muscles sensitivity to glucose. The increased sensitivity allows glucose to enter the muscles cells for immediate use or storage. Another role for insulin is to signal your fat cells to store excess glucose. Insulin sensitivity and glucose removal from the blood is an important function for normal health.

Fiber is an important component of carbohydrates and is found in whole foods. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Both are important in adding digestion and gut health. Most often foods that are processed strip the fiber content from the food. An example is eating an orange versus drinking orange juice. The processing to make orange juice, or any fruit juices, removes most if not all the fiber thereby eliminating an important nutritional component. Fiber helps slow the absorption of sugars (glucose) into the blood stream. In addition, fiber helps support the good bacteria that reside in your gut.

Nutrition Label

In the nutrition facts section, carbohydrates include the following:

· Total Carbohydrates

· Dietary Fiber

· Total Sugars

· Includes (x) Added Sugars

Why it’s important to read the ingredients

What the food label section for Nutrition Facts does not tell you is what type of carbohydrate you are eating. The food label is just giving you the general nutrition breakdown. Having the added sugars is helpful because it informs you of added simple sugars in addition to the natural sugars in the food or drink. Reading the ingredients will tell you what the sugars are and how much of that sugar ingredient is in the product relative to the other ingredients listed. In the previous article (click here), I explained the ingredients are listed from most to least. An ingredient listed at the beginning will comprise a greater amount or weight than the same ingredient listed towards the end. Sweeteners come in many forms. High fructose corn syrup, potato starch, corn starch, honey and molasses to name just a few. In the Nutrition Facts the sweeteners are part of the added sugars. The added sugars were a recent and important addition to the Nutrition Facts label. Being aware of added sugars is important because many food and drink products that are advertised as healthy, for example yogurt, can have added sugars. If you or a loved one is pre-diabetic or a diabetic it’s important to know if the product is as healthy as advertised!

The next article will look at understanding the Nutrition Facts for fat and protein. The first article about food labels can be found here.

If you have any questions about how to read the food label and how the ingredients affect your diet and health give me a call at 215-830-9997.


  1. Yudkin, John: Pure, White, and Deadly

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