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A simple guide to reading food labels with type 2 diabetes

With so many facts and figures on food packaging, it can be hard to understand which products are actually good for us. Food manufacturers are competing for our attention in the supermarket aisles, so they bombard us with claims designed to catch our eye.

‘Sugar-free’, ‘reduced fat’, ‘organic’, ‘locally sourced’, ‘new improved recipe’ – it’s often just noise designed to distract you from the real nutritional information on the back of the label. According to a 2021 survey by the International Food Information Council, 60% of people in classed as having excellent/very good health always or often pay attention to food labels when shopping in person, compared to 43% in worse health1. But who has the time to study every individual food product they buy?

This simple guide aims to help you understand what the numbers mean, which ones you should focus on, and how to manage your diet to maintain a happy, healthy life with type 2 diabetes.


At a glance...

When buying packaged foods, as a general rule, choose products with:
  • low total fat (especially saturated fat)
  • low sugar
  • low sodium
  • high fibre
  • lower kilojoules (especially when trying to lose weight)

‘Fat-free’ and ‘sugar-free’ DOESN’T mean carb-free

Some diabetic diets are based on balancing blood glucose by limiting carbohydrates. Therefore, it’s important to focus on ‘total carbohydrates’, which includes added sugars and fibre, not just sugar content2.

Some foods, such as milk and fruit, are nutritious despite being naturally high in sugar, and can be included as part of a balanced diet2,3

Look for healthy fats

Not all fats are created equal. Unhealthy fats like saturated and trans fats raise your cholesterol and increase your cardiovascular risk4. In contrast, good fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats help to protect your heart, even if they’re high in calories4.

‘Reduced salt’ isn’t the same as low salt

For a food to earn a ‘reduced salt’ label, that means it has 25% less salt than the original version of that product5. But that reduced level may still be relatively high. The same logic applies to items boasting ‘reduced fat’.

Be wary of serving sizes

Serving sizes on food labels can be misleading and designed to make sugar, fat and salt content look lower than it actually is6. If you have a meal plan that specifies serving sizes, see how they compare to the servings listed on the food label so you can stay within your daily calorie and carbohydrate goals.

Consult a qualified nutritionist

Of course, a great way to minimise the guesswork in your shopping basket is to have a clear plan of what meals are more effective when managing your diabetes and which ingredients are safe to choose.

A nutritionist with experience in type 2 diabetes can help you co-create a balanced diet and meal plan that also factors in your personal tastes.

You can also check out the Novo Nordisk cookbook, packed with wholesome, delicious, and easy-to-make recipes suitable for people with type 2 diabetes.

Want to learn more about healthy nutrition and reducing your risk of heart disease? Speak to your doctor.


  1. International Food Information Council (IFIC). Food & Health Survey 2021, May 2021. Available from: https://foodinsight.org/2021-food-health-survey/. Last accessed: March 2024.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Carb Counting. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/managing/eat-well/diabetes-and-carbohydrates.html. Last accessed: March 2024.
  3. NHS UK. Eating a balanced diet. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-to-eat-a-balanced-diet/eating-a-balanced-diet/. Last accessed: March 2024.
  4. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, et al. Saturated fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease: modulation by replacement nutrients. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2010;12:384-390.
  5. Heart Attack and Stroke Symptoms. Food Packaging Claims. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/food-packaging-claims. Last accessed March 2024.
  6. Kliemann N, Kraemer MVS, Scapin T, Rodrigues VM, et al. Serving Size and Nutrition Labelling: Implications for Nutrition Information and Nutrition Claims on Packaged Foods. Nutrients. 2018; 10(7):891.

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