Net Carbs, Low Carbs: Learning the Language

Carbohydrate Confusion Continues

Net carbs? Low carb? Confusion stalks the grocery, as we wonder how many net carbs we need and whether low carb is the way to go.

Just a short time ago, making a choice at the sandwich shop was fairly simple – do you want white or whole grain bread? Turkey or tuna? Extra mayo or not? The diet-weary among us probably knew which choice provided more fiber, more omega-3 fatty acids, more fat, etc. But today? Now we’re asked if we want bread with that sandwich! And the new carb language leaves many of us more than challenged. What does ‘net carbs’ actually mean? How about ‘Effective Carb Count’ and ‘Net Impact Carbs?’

Ask the Experts

In the past if we asked the watchdogs for food label claims – the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – what these terms meant, we could quickly get a chart outlining the terms and their specific, allowed meanings. Today, however, there are no approved definitions for the new terms used to describe carbohydrate content. There isn’t even a legal definition for the term ‘low carbohydrate.’

So while the FDA scrambles to ensure that these terms are being used in a manner consistent with other nutrient content labeling claims, we’ll provide you with a short overview as to what they seem to mean, and what to look for when choosing carbohydrate-containing foods.

Doing the Math

Since there is no official definition for ‘net carbohydrates’ or its relatives, exactly what these terms mean may differ from product to product. But in general, they’re defined as total carbohydrates minus the carbohydrates used in the product that don’t affect blood sugar, such as fiber or sugar alcohols. Indeed, these terms were coined as a way to distinguish carbohydrate-containing foods that have less impact on blood sugars.

After we eat carbohydrates like starch or sugar, blood sugar (glucose) rises as insulin is released to move the glucose into the cell (a necessary process to produce energy to run the body, by the way). But when starch and/or sugar are replaced with fiber, sugar alcohols (e.g., sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, maltitol, isomalt, erythritol), glycerine, or sugar substitutes, the product contains fewer carbohydrates that affect blood sugar.

To get the net carbohydrate value, manufacturers subtract the grams of fiber, sugar alcohols and glycerine from the product’s grams of total carbohydrates.

Here’s how a popular low carbohydrate candy bar figures its net carbohydrates:

25 g total carbohydrate – 11 g fiber – 3 g sugar alcohol – 9 g glycerine = 2 net carbs

Keep in mind, however, that just because something is lower in carbohydrates, it’s not necessarily lower in calories.

Sometimes carbohydrates are replaced with protein or fat, which may actually increase the calorie content. The low carbohydrate candy bar above contains 220 calories, only 10 less than a similar, regular (and better-tasting, in our opinion) candy bar!

Choosing the Best

If you’re insulin resistant, have diabetes or some other blood sugar control challenge, it’s important to manage your carbohydrate intake. But there’s more to choosing healthy foods than their carbohydrate count. Research shows that a diet rich in whole foods– that aren’t carbohydrate modified – such as fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates (whole grains and legumes) are the best choices for long, healthy lives at healthy weights. Read more in Green Mountain’s FitBriefing on low carb dieting and weight loss.

In addition, eating at least three balanced meals and a snack or two a day is what most active people need to feel well. That means including protein, fat and a healthy amount of complex carbohydrates in your meals (see our Plate Model for Healthy Eating for more information).

What You Need To Know

If you do decide to use foods that have been modified to reduce their carbohydrate content, consider these tips to choose wisely.

  • Choose higher-fiber items. Fiber is essentially a calorie-free carbohydrate that actually helps control blood sugar swings.
  • Check the overall nutrient content. Does the product contain reasonable amounts of saturated fat or sodium? These ingredients are often added to improve taste in modified foods.
  • Eat mindfully, using internal cues for hunger and satisfaction. One of the biggest pitfalls of ‘diet’ foods is the mindset that they’re ‘free.’ But some modified carbohydrate foods contain more calories than the original, and if they’re high in sugar alcohols like sorbitol and mannitol, they can have a laxative effect when eaten in large quantities.

Finally, here’s one great tip for eating well when eating fewer carbohydrates: Forget net carbs and low carb — enjoy the real thing in smaller portion sizes!

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