Tip of the Day Food Labels 101 – Total Carbohydrates and Sugar

December 16, 2015
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Pete Hellberg MS, CSCS, CISSN
Nutrition & Exercise Counselor
Cenegenics Philadelphia

It is clear from multiple recent studies that for the majority of people, the most effective type of nutrition program to lose weight, improve body composition and reduce cardiovascular risk is a reduced carbohydrate diet. However, what I consider to be intentional misinformation in food labeling leads to a great deal of confusion for the health conscious consumer who is trying to reduce their intake of carbohydrates, especially simple sugars.

When looking at food labels, here are a few caveats to keep in mind.

  • Total carbohydrates include simple sugars as below, “complex” carbohydrates, starches, sugar alcohols, and fiber.
  • Sugars can include glucose, fructose (fruit sugar), lactose (milk sugar), sucrose (table sugar), and maltose.
  • Many products contain a complex carbohydrate called maltodextrin which is technically not a sugar. However, it has a glycemic index higher than table sugar.
  • Most complex carbohydrates, even those from whole grains, are broken down rapidly into simple sugars by our gut bacteria and rapidly absorbed. This means that they behave like simple sugars in terms of their effect on blood glucose and insulin.

Nutrition LabelThe label from this popular “whole grain” cereal shown on the right indicates 3 grams of sugar and 7 grams of fiber per serving. There is even 7 grams of protein. Sounds pretty good, right? Yet, there are 47 grams of total carbohydrates! Where or what are the other 40 grams of carbs? The difference between the total carbohydrates and the sum of the sugars and fiber is considered to be complex carbohydrates or starches, perhaps even from whole grains. This might lead us to believe that these complex carbohydrates would be digested slowly and have less impact on blood sugar/glucose, and that we need not worry about them. Wrong!   As mentioned above, most complex carbohydrates, even those from whole grains, are broken down rapidly into simple sugars by our gut bacteria, stimulating a strong insulin spike. Remember, simple carbohydrates (sugars) raise blood glucose, which in turn stimulates insulin release. Insulin stores fat and blocks fat release. Our goal is to keep our insulin levels relatively low to promote fat loss.

In effect, the product shown has 40 grams of sugars per serving, not 3. Not to mention that at a serving size of 1/2 cup, most of us would eat at least 2 servings at a sitting, if not more. That would translate to 80+ grams of carbs in one sitting. That’s a lot of carbs for a bowl of cereal that is supposed to be healthy.

Bottom line: Don’t be fooled by a low sugar content. If you are interested in losing weight or body fat, look at the total carbohydrates and consider them all (except for the fiber) to be sugars, even the sugar alcohols.


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Posted in Blog, Exercise/Nutrition News by rishman