What Is the Difference Between Sugar & Carbs on Food Labels?

When you are grocery shopping, selecting the right food by reading food labels can be a long and confusing process. The nutrition facts panel provides a great deal of information about the nutritional value of different foods, but understanding it can be challenging. The first important feature to be aware of when looking at the nutrition facts is the serving size. Located at the top of the table, the serving size indicated on the package may be different from the serving size you usually consume, so you may need to do some math to find out how much you will be eating.

A spoon in a bowl of white sugar. (Image: VvoeVale/iStock/Getty Images)

Carbohydrate

Carbohydrate is one of the three main macronutrients present in food, along with protein and fat. These three nutrients provide us with the energy, or calories, the body needs. Each gram of carbohydrate and protein provides 4 calories, while a gram of fat provides 9 calories. Carbohydrates are found in a wide variety of foods, such as grain products, including bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, oatmeal, flours, crackers, starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn, legumes, milk, yogurt, fruits, juices, sugar and desserts. Carbohydrates comprise three different nutrients -- starches, sugar and dietary fiber. Therefore, when looking at the nutrition facts table, the number of total carbohydrates corresponds to the sum of sugar, starches and fiber. The percent daily value appears at the right and is based on a 2,000-calorie diet, which encourages the consumption of 300 grams carbohydrates a day.

Sugar

Sugar was previously classified as a simple carbohydrate and included lactose, or milk sugar, sucrose, or table sugar, and fructose, fruit sugar. All these different types of sugars, whether they were naturally present in the food or drink or added to it, appear together in the sugar section of the nutrition facts table. Because there are no specific recommendations made for sugar, there is no percent daily value made for this nutrient.

Fiber

Dietary fiber is part of the total carbohydrates, but unlike sugar and starch, fiber is not digestible. The percent daily value corresponds to 25 grams. Some food labels also make the distinction between soluble and insoluble fiber, the two types of fiber found in foods. Insoluble fiber is mainly present in whole grains products and bran as well as in the skin of the fruits and in some vegetables. Its roles include preventing constipation and promoting regular bowel movements. Soluble fiber is usually found in oat, barley, flax seeds, nuts and psyllium, as well as some fruits and vegetables. It also has the ability to stabilize blood sugar levels and lower blood cholesterol levels.

Net Carbs

Whether you have diabetes and are trying to get your blood sugar levels under control or whether you follow a low-carb diet to lose weight, looking at the nutrition facts table of what you buy is important. The most important nutrients to look at are the total carbohydrates and the dietary fiber. You can skip the sugar, since it is already included in the total carbohydrates, along with the starch and fiber. With these two nutrients, you can calculate the net carbs content of a food, simply by subtracting the fiber from the total carbohydrate. Use the net carbs if tracking your carbohydrate intake.

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