''Free'' Foods for Diabetes

In diabetes meal planning, blood sugar control is the main goal. Typically, people with diabetes are advised to follow carbohydrate-controlled diets in order to minimize blood sugar spikes and manage their disease. Since many foods contain carbohydrates, this can be a challenge. One must learn not only which foods contain carbohydrates, but how to control those portion sizes and divide the carbohydrate foods appropriately into meals and snacks for the day.

During this process of learning and planning, you may also hear about "free foods." In the diabetes world, ''free'' foods are defined as foods (or drinks) that contribute a very small amount of carbohydrates and are also very low in calories. There are two categories of ''free'' foods.

Category #1: Even though this group is called "free," people with diabetes cannot eat them with reckless abandon (the name is slightly misleading). Rather, these foods are considered "free" because when eaten in specified portions, they do not need to be added to a person's allotted carbohydrate amount for a meal or snack. That's because these particular foods, although they may contain a small amount of carbohydrates, have a very minimal impact on blood sugar levels.
  • In order for a food or drink to be in this category (and not count as a carbohydrate food in diabetes meal planning), it must contain fewer than five grams of carbohydrates and less than 20 calories per serving.
  • These foods should be limited to no more than three servings per day, spread throughout the day. If all three servings were eaten at the same meal or snack, the food would in fact impact (raise) your blood glucose levels. Refer to the serving sizes listed in the charts below to measure proper serving sizes.
  • Remember: Carbohydrate and calorie content were the criteria used for these listings. These foods were not selected because of a certain nutrient aspect or health attribute.
Food or Beverage Serving Size
Barbecue sauce 2 tsp
Cabbage, raw 1/2 cup
Candy, hard (regular or sugar-free) 1 piece
Carrots, cooked 1/4 cup
Catsup 1 Tbsp
Cauliflower, cooked 1/4 cup
Cranberries, fresh (unsweetened) 1/2 cup
Cream cheese, fat-free 1 Tbsp
Creamer, non-dairy liquid 1 Tbsp
Creamer, non-dairy powder 2 Tbsp
Cucumber, sliced 1/2 cup
Green beans, cooked 1/4 cup
Honey mustard 1 Tbsp
Jam or jelly (no sugar added) 2 tsp
Margarine, fat-free 1 Tbsp
Margarine, reduced fat 1 tsp
Mayonnaise, fat-free 1 Tbsp
Mayonnaise, reduced fat 1 tsp
Miso 1 1/2 tsp
Parmesan cheese 1 Tbsp
Pickle relish 1 Tbsp
Pickles, dill 1 1/2 medium
Pickles (sweet, bread and butter) 2 slices
Pickles (sweet, gherkin) 0.75 oz
Rhubarb (fresh, unsweetened, or with sugar rub) 1/2 cup
Salad dressing, fat-free or low-fat 1 Tbsp
Salad dressing, fat-free Italian 2 Tbsp
Salsa 1/4 cup
Sour cream, fat-free or reduced fat 1 Tbsp
Soy sauce, light or regular 1 Tbsp
Sweet and sour sauce 2 tsp
Sweet chili sauce 2 tsp
Syrup (sugar free) 2 Tbsp
Taco sauce 1 Tbsp
Whipped topping, fat-free or light 2 Tbsp
Whipped topping, regular 1 Tbsp

Category #2: The following foods are so low in carbohydrates and calories that people with diabetes can eat them in moderate amounts, as often as desired throughout the day. Once again, these foods are not included in this list because they offer superior nutrition or health attributes. This is simply a list of foods that are so low in calories and carbohydrates that they do not impact the blood sugar levels of people with diabetes.

  • Bouillon or broth (regular or low sodium)
  • Club soda
  • Cocoa powder (unsweetened)
  • Coffee (unsweetened or with artificial sweetener)
  • Diet soda
  • Diet tonic water
  • Sugar-free drink mixes (such as sugar-free Kool-Aid or Crystal Light)
  • Flavored water (carbohydrate-free)
  • Flavoring extracts (i.e. vanilla, almond, etc.)
  • Garlic
  • Gelatin (sugar-free)
  • Herbs, fresh or dried
  • Horseradish
  • Hot pepper sauce
  • Lemon juice
  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • Pimento
  • Salad greens
  • Spices
  • Sugar substitutes
  • Tea (unsweetened or with artificial sweetener)
  • Vinegar
  • Water (including carbonated or mineral)
  • Worcestershire sauce

For more specific information or help, talk to your health care provider. The American Diabetes Association's National Call Center also offers live advice from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday at 1-800-DIABETES or 1-800-342-2383.

American Diabetes Association, Choose Your Foods: Exchange Lists for Diabetes. (Chicago: American Dietetic Association, 2008).