Finding a low-carb snack option that checks off convenience, satisfaction, great taste, and nutrition can definitely seem like a difficult task. That’s especially true when you’re searching for new options at the grocery store, trying to decipher food labels with words you’ve never read before. If you don’t quite understand what everything on a food package means, know you’re not alone. According to a 2018 survey of more than 800 people, 58% of consumers said they don’t understand food labels and another 40% said they only “partially understand.” Thankfully, Judy Thompson, RDN, MPH, CDCES, certified diabetes educator and licensed dietitian in Honolulu, HI, clued us in on how to decode nutrition labels so you can find the best products for you—whether you’re looking for low-carb snacks or the best choices for those living with diabetes. Follow these steps to confirm that your bar, bag, or box of goods includes nutrients and deliciousness all in one pre-packaged product.
Examine the ingredient list.
Another survey of more than 1,000 consumers, led by the International Food Information Council Foundation and the American Heart Association, found that 67% of people check the ingredients list—a smart place to start assessing a product’s quality. On that list, you’ll find exactly what’s in your food, listed in order of weight, so you want to recognize what’s there. Look for whole foods, like apples, oats, nuts, or sea salt, to name a few examples. And make sure those wholesome ingredients hold the first few spots on the list. “You want to look for products with a shorter list of ingredients, too,” Thompson says.
Check the carb content.
If you’re trying to stick to a specific number of carbs per day or you just want to cut back on sugar in general for a low-carb lifestyle, take a look at the total carbs, as well as the added sugars on the nutrition label, Thompson says.
Think about added sugars in terms of teaspoons—a good visualization for putting a product’s sugar content into perspective, Thompson says. In general, women should aim for about six teaspoons per day of added sugar, and men about 9 teaspoons, according to the American Heart Association. Four grams of sugar equals about one teaspoon, so a food with 25 grams of sugar will already exceed that limit of six teaspoons a day for women. That’s something to consider when buying products like low-carb snacks.
If it’s easier for you to think in terms of total carb count, Thompson says generally speaking, those who eat three meals a day and snacks between, should consider keeping total carbs to about 45 to 60 grams per meal for most women and 60 to 75 grams per meal for most men. As for low-carb snacks or mini meals, go for those that contain about 15 to 30 grams of carbs. Remember: The total carbohydrates that your body needs depends on a range of factors, so it’s important to talk to your doctor or dietitian about personalized recommendations.
Find out if it has fiber.
A final, crucial check for carb content: fiber. Certain types can help slow the digestion of carbs and more specifically, slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream. Most adults in the U.S. get about half the fiber they need in a day, says Thompson, which is about 25 to 35 grams. Look for foods with at least 2.5 grams of fiber, but even better if it contains close to 5 grams—that’s what the American Diabetes Association considers an excellent source of fiber.
Consider other macronutrients.
Protein and fat both play very important roles in keeping you full and satisfied. So, check the label to see how many grams you get in a serving, opting for products that offer a few grams each so you get satiety and satisfaction from your low-carb snacks and other foods. One caveat is that fat can pack more calories than carbs do, so don’t forget to glance at the overall calorie count, too, making sure it fits within your eating plan.
Keep the saturated fat in control.
Those with diabetes have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, says Thompson, so it’s a good idea to follow the American Heart Association’s rule of aiming for just 5% to 6% of calories in a day coming from saturated fat. If that is difficult to stick to, 10% is a reasonable goal. If you need 2,000 calories a day, 5% would be 11 grams of saturated fat for the day. At 10% of calories, it would be 22 grams for the day. Food labels will list the percent of daily calories, all based on a 2,000-calorie diet, coming from saturated fat. That means you want to aim for foods that avoid the total daily quota in one serving.
Think about your entire week.
Thompson says it’s important to look at your entire week of meals to determine where low-carb snacks will fall—which also means if you want a sweet treat one day, there’s room for it. “No one meal or snack is going to change your health. It is the pattern of what you eat during the week that counts,” Thompson says. Small steps lead to bigger life-long changes, so you don’t have to overhaul all food groups, including snacks, all at once. Focus on one food label, and finding one healthy, nutritious, and tasty product at a time.
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