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Label Reading 103

The last two blogs have been about the facts of label reading. Here I want to talk about the carbohydrates as well as values and priorities concerning carbohydrates.

We talked about protein and fats on the label last week. Carbohydrates are a bit different because there are so many variables and each person may have a different level of tolerance. Some people do best with very little; some do best with carbohydrate at certain meals; some do best when it is spread evenly through the day. So, pay close attention to what works best for your body, mind, and spirit, but here are some principles to pay attention to.

First the technical stuff.

On the Nutrition Facts label, Total Carbohydrate includes all the whole grains, dietary fiber, refined flours, starches, and added sugars that are in the product. Net Carbohydrate, which is only sometimes listed on the label, only includes carbohydrates that the body can fully digest into glucose.

Simple Carbohydrates, not listed on the label, include sugars and refined grains that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients. Complex Carbohydrates, also not listed on the label, include beans, unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.  Complex Carbohydrates are the ones that have the most vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They are the healthiest sources of carbohydrates and promote good health by delivering vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a host of important phytonutrients to the body. Complex Carbohydrates are also digested more slowly, and are less likely to cause a rapid spike in your blood sugar like Simple Carbohydrates.

The amount of Dietary Fiber in a serving is then listed below Total Carbohydrates. Women need about 25 grams of fiber per day; men need about 38. Look at what part of the day’s meals this food is, to decide if you are getting the right portion of fiber at this meal.

Total Sugars is next on the label.  If a food contains sweeteners called sugar alcohols – xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol – they also are included in total carbs and net carbs and will be listed in the ingredients list, but not in the nutrient part of the Nutrition Facts.  Be careful as these may trigger some people.

Added Sugars will be listed separately in the Nutrition Facts, but is also included in the Total Carbohydrate.  Sugar is a type of carbohydrate found naturally in many of the foods we eat. It can either occur naturally in foods or be added in, and is used by the body for energy. The more Added Sugar in the product, the more likely it will trigger some people.

Starches are not listed separately on the nutrition labels. This includes refined flours, and foods like tapioca starch and cornstarch, which are basically flours and are likely to trigger you.

Now the values and priorities.

Whole grains are just that: the whole plant that has been harvested and dried with little processing. They provide fiber as well as essential vitamins including B and E and other minerals needed for optimal health. Examples include oats, barley, bulgur, quinoa, brown rice, farro and amaranth. The majority of your daily grain intake should come from whole grains.

“Refined Grains” are processed to remove the outer layers and most nutritious parts of the grain, removing all the beneficial fiber, vitamins and minerals that the whole grain would typically provide. To avoid diseases caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies, there are laws in place to make sure that essential vitamins and minerals are added back in during processing — this is what “enriched” means when you see it on the label. When reading the ingredient list, look for products that list “whole grain” or “whole wheat” as the first ingredient as opposed to “enriched.”

To separate the whole grain carbohydrate from the starches and some sugars, read the Ingredients part of the label carefully. Whole foods, like chickpeas, lentils, brown rice, and quinoa, should predominate on the label. If the label says “made with whole grains” that means that any portion of the product may be made with refined grains. When it says “100% whole grain,” that is a whole grain product.  This is confusing, I know, and that is why we need to look carefully. Choose products with primarily whole food ingredients and labels you understand. Avoid items with lots of additives – thickeners like carrageenan and xanthan gum, and artificial coloring and flavoring. Choose the real foods instead.

Processed foods tend to be high in carbohydrates, especially Simple Carbohydrates, while also being very low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They are likely to trigger you, avoid them.

Foods that are high nutrient carbohydrates include starchy vegetables like corn, winter squash and potatoes; legumes and pulses, including lentils, beans (like kidney beans, pinto beans, and black beans) and peas (think split peas and black-eyed peas) are usually safe for all people.

I know this is confusing, but if you have questions, please comment, email or call me.

Blessings to you,


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