How to Read Carbohydrates on Food Labels

Portion control is a good way to control your calories intake. Especially for people with diabetes, it is important to control carbohydrate portion for blood glucose management. It may be easier to estimate the carbohydrate serving size of whole foods by using fist size, cup or bowl. But when it comes to packaged food, it can be confusing to estimate the serving size because there are a lot of numbers on the food labels! But fret not, with some tricks, learning how to read carbohydrates on food labels is actually easy!

Components on Food Labels

On the food labels, you will see words like the following;

Serving Per Pack

Shows the total number of servings in the entire food package or container.

It is common for one package of food to contain more than one serving. 1 serving can be equal to one glass (250 ml) (e.g. milk, juice), 1 tablespoon (15 g) (e.g. peanut butter), or 6 pieces (e.g. biscuits) depending on the type of product.

Serving Size

Amount of food that is usually eaten at one time.

For example, one litre of milk carton indicates that it contains 4 servings (1 serving = 1 glass of 250 ml). So, this product recommends you to have 1 glass in one seating. If you finished the whole carton, that means you have drunk 4 glasses of milk.

‘Per Serving’ and ‘Per 100 g’

You will also note that there is a nutrition table. On the tables, there are two columns that show nutrition figures. One column is ‘Per Serving’ and the other one is ‘Per 100 g/ml’.

The figure listed on ‘Per Serving’ column indicates how much nutrients you’d get if you eat one serving. So, if a package contains two servings and you eat the entire package, you have consumed twice the amount of calories and nutrients listed on the ‘Per Serving’ column.

The information listed on ‘Per 100 g/ml’ column is to make it easy to compare it with similar products. The numbers in the ‘Per 100 g/ml’ column are also the same as percentages. For example, if 20 g of added sugar is listed in the ‘Per 100 g/ml’ column, this means 20% of the product by weight is added sugar.


The ingredients list can also help you work out how healthy the product is. Ingredients are listed in order from the largest to the smallest amount used, based on the weight of the ingredient.

The major ingredients in a food product are usually listed in the first three ingredients. For example, if the first few ingredients are high saturated fat ingredients, such as cream, butter or palm oil, then the food in question is a high saturated fat food.

How to Read Carbohydrates on Food Labels and Choosing a Healthy Product

The components mentioned above are the basic things you should know when scanning food labels. You can read here to know more on how to understand the food labels in general: How to Read a Food Label and really Understand those Numbers

So what if you want to know how many carbohydrate servings you will get when eating the product? Knowing how to read carbohydrates on food labels is important if you want to keep track of your carbohydrates intake.

Remember! 1 Serving of Carbohydrate = 15 g of Carbohydrates

When learning how to read carbohydrates on food labels, always remember that 1 serving of carbohydrate is equal to 15 g of carbohydrates.

If you want to have a snack, it is recommended to eat no more than 1 to 2 servings of carbohydrates in one sitting. That would be around 15 to 30 g of carbohydrates.

Snack = 15 – 30 g of carbohydrate

For the main meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner), 2 to 3 servings of carbs would be enough. That is about 30-45 g of carbohydrates. 3 servings of carbohydrates are about the size of 1 fist size of rice.

Main meal = 30-45 g of carbohydrates.

When scanning the food label, looking at the grams of carbohydrate per serving would help you to estimate how much you can eat the food in an appropriate amount.

Learn how to read carbohydrates on food labels by looking at this sample food label of a cracker product,

How to Read Carbohydrates on Food Labels

From the label, it shows that;

Serving Size: 30 g (3 pieces crackers)

Total Carbohydrate Per Serving: 20.6 g carbohydrate for every serving.

If you want to have a snack (which is 15 to 30 g of carbohydrate), eating 3 crackers (1 serving) would be enough already because you will get 20.6 g for every 3 pieces of crackers.

If you want to have this cracker as your carbohydrate for your main meal (30 to 45 g of carbohydrate per meal), eating up to 6 crackers would be okay. That is 2 servings of this product (contains about 41.2 g of carbohydrate).

That is how you roughly estimate it!

Some Food Labels Include Dietary Fibre Under Total Carbohydrate

Different countries have a different way of showing the total carbohydrates figures. For example, countries like the United StatesCanada, and Philippines include dietary fibre under total carbohydrates. You can see from the label below that dietary fibre is under ‘Total Carbohydrate’. However, in most other countries including Singapore, China, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia, the “Total Carbohydrates” actually excludes fibre. If you’re counting carbohydrates to titrate to insulin, it’s important to take note of what the labels mean in different countries.

Fibre is a type of carbohydrate. However, it cannot be broken down into sugar by our body, and instead, it passes through the body undigested. Some of the fibre (i.e. soluble fibre) will be fermented by bacteria in the large intestine. The fermentation process provides a small number of calories in the form of Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA) which will not directly raise your blood glucose. Therefore, we need to subtract the dietary fibre content from the total carbohydrate to get the real figures of carbohydrate serving when referring to the food labels from countries like US, Canada, and the Philippines.

For people with diabetes that are treated with insulin, getting the most accurate carbohydrate serving may help control blood sugars better. Calculating the total carbohydrate without subtracting the fibre may cause you to miscalculate the insulin dosage accurately if you are getting a product from the US, Canada or the Philippines.

Let see how to read carbohydrates on food labels that include fibre under total carbohydrates,

From the label, the total carbohydrate is 37 g (~2.5 servings carbohydrates). But when you subtract the dietary fibre (4 g), it becomes 33 g of carbohydrates (~2 servings carbohydrates). That means, only 33 g of carbohydrates that will give impact to the blood glucose.

This is something important to consider when you want to manage your blood glucose closely. Read carefully when looking up the food labels of imported food products, especially from these countries.

Avoid High-Sugar Products

Apart from learning how to read carbohydrates on food labels, a rule of thumb that you should follow when controlling carbohydrate intake is to always choose low-sugar or sugar-free products. For easy reference, this is the guideline to tell you if the product is high sugar or not.

High Sugar: more than 22.5 g of total sugars per 100 g
Low: 5 g of total sugars or less per 100 g

A simpler way to detect high sugar products is to scan through the ingredients list. Make sure that sugar is not on the first 3 ingredients. The lower it is on the ingredients list, the better. Beware of words like ‘concentrate’, ‘syrup’, ‘juice’, ‘crystals’, and words ending in -ose, which are probably names of different sugar types.

Choose High-Fibre Products

Choosing a high-fibre product is also a good tip if you want to manage your blood glucose reading. Fibre is very important in regulating blood glucose and helps stabilize sugar spike. Choose a product that contains 3 to 5 g or more of fibre per serving. If the product is lower than 3 g, eating some vegetables with the product can help boost the fibre!

It is recommended to eat fibre about 20g for women and 26g for men every day. This equates to two servings of fruit and two servings of vegetables per day. Eating whole grain products can help you achieve this fibre recommendation.

Whole Foods are Still the Best!

Learning how to read food labels is very useful when buying packaged food products. But a healthier and better way to consume foods is to eat whole food! Whole food does not need an ingredients list, because the whole food IS the ingredient.

But there are times that you need to buy packaged foods. So learning how to translate the figures correctly is still important to help you avoid being misled by the information on food claims. What about when eating outside? How do you make sure that you eat healthily? Check out this blog post: Healthier Eating At Hawker Centres And Food Courts with Diabetes

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