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With carbohydrates top of the pops as the world’s favourite dietary villain, you’d think mandatory Nutrition Facts/Information panels would provide all of the important information about them to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions. But they don’t.

Carbohydrates include the maltodextrins, starches and sugars that we are able to digest and absorb to provide our bodies with fuel such as glucose, plus dietary fibre that provides bulk and importantly is also a fuel for our microbiome.

How we label carbohydrates in foods varies around the world, with the USA now providing the most detailed information. Dietary Fiber is correctly listed under Total Carbohydrate, and Total Sugars are now broken down to include Added Sugars. While people who are limiting their added sugars intake may find this additional information useful, it doesn’t solve all of the problems with carbohydrate in the Nutrition Facts panel.

New Nutrition Facts

People with diabetes need to know how much available carbohydrate is in a serve of a food or beverage to estimate how much of an impact it may have on blood glucose (sugar) levels, and in many people’s cases to estimate how much insulin is required for optimal blood glucose management. It can be calculated using the following equation:

Available Carbohydrate = Total Carbohydrate (g) – Dietary Fiber (g) 

In Australia, the Nutrition Information panel only lists (Total) Carbohydrate and (Total) sugars. Unfortunately, dietary fibre is optional unless a nutrition claim is made about carbohydrates on the packaging. On the positive side, Carbohydrate is available carbohydrate, so people with diabetes don’t need to subtract fibre to calculate it.

Nutrition Information

In both countries, if you add Dietary Fiber and Total Sugars you will notice that it doesn’t add up to Total Carbohydrate. Question: what’s missing? Answer: maltodextrins and starches. They are the hidden carbohydrates in foods and beverages – not sugars. Does it matter? YES. Maltodextrins and starches provide more kilojoules per gram (17.5 kJ/g compared to 16 kJ per gram) and often have a higher glycemic index than sugars, and they also contribute to tooth decay.

When companies reformulate their foods and beverages to reduce the amount of Added Sugars they contain they often add in maltodextrins or starches to compensate, as they provide bulk and texture – a bit like sugars. While lower in Added Sugars, the reformulated product may not be a healthier choice at all. But because of current labelling laws you don’t know that.

Because, like starches, maltodextrins are chains of glucose (10+ glucose compared to 3–9 glucose molecules, respectively), that are broken down using the same digestive enzymes, they should be grouped together for simplicity. So, an ideal Nutrition Facts / Information Panel would include all of this important information about carbohydrate to ensure we can make truly informed purchasing decisions.

Since January 2018, GI News has included a new segment “GOOD CARBS FOOD FACTS A TO Z” and we have included more detailed information on carbohydrates in food to ensure our readers can make truly informed decisions:

GI News Nutrition Information

While we think it’s unlikely that any government will legislate to include this detailed information on all food packaging, it would be ideal if they at least included starches. We aren’t optimistic.

 Dr Alan Barclay  
Alan Barclay, PhD is a consultant dietitian and chef (Cert III). He worked for Diabetes Australia (NSW) from 1998–2014 . He is author/co-author of more than 30 scientific publications, and author/co-author of  The good Carbs Cookbook (Murdoch Books), Reversing Diabetes (Murdoch Books), The Low GI Diet: Managing Type 2 Diabetes (Hachette Australia) and The Ultimate Guide to Sugars and Sweeteners (The Experiment, New York).

Contact: You can follow him on Twitter or check out his website.