Marketing Tricks that Make Carb Counting Tough: Net Carbs, Sugar Alcohols, etc.
People who are trying to cut down on their carbs can have a tough time determining how many grams of carbs are really in the foods they buy. Every drugstore and supermarket in U.S. is filled with snack products that claim to be perfect for people with diabetes or for those eating a low carb diet for weight loss.
Often the front of the package will assert that this "low carb" product provides 2 or 3 "effective" grams of carbohydrate while the nutritional panel on the back of the package--the only part of the package that the FDA regulates--lists a much higher carbohydrate and/or sugar content.
If these disappearing make you suspicious, you may prefer to buy products that list only a gram or two of carbs in their nutritional information panel. But a look at their ingredient list may show that mysterious substances like maltitol, glycerine or polydextrose are major ingredients of these bars, too--and that these are the exact same substances reported on labels of the bars that claim to supply only "3 grams of Net Carbs" on the front of the package and list 20-something grams of carbs in their nutritional information panel.
Deceptive Labels Trick Those Just Beginning to Cut Down on Carbs
Most of these "low carb" products are sweetened with substances called "sugar alcohols," which the FDA allows manufacturers to describe as "sugar free." You will find these chemicals in almost every product found in your supermarket as suitable for people with diabetes. The most common are maltitol, lacitol, and sorbitol. Despite the name, these aren't sugars or alcohols. They are hydrogenated starch molecules which are a byproduct of grain processing.
These sugar alcohols are manufactured by the three large agribusiness companies: SPI Polyols, Roquette America, Inc. and Archer Daniels Midland, the same companies that saturated world with high fructose corn syrup. These giant corn-producing companies produce hydrogenated corn starch molecules as yet another way to wring profits out of surplus corn.
Despite the FDA's approval and wrapper claims, these sugar alcohols are metabolized. Each gram of a sugar alcohol turns into anywhere from less than 1 to as much as 3 calories. Erythritol, which is expensive and almost never found in "diabetic" or "low carb" snack foods, comes in lowest, delivering less than one calorie per gram--less than a quarter of the carbs in a teaspoon of table sugar. Maltitol--the most frequently used sugar alcohol--provides the most carbs--3 calories per gram. That is only one gram less than the 4 calories you find in regular sugar and starch.
It is because these sugar alcohols can be metabolized as carbohydrates that US law requires that they be reported as carbohydrates on nutritional labels and why their calories are included in calorie counts.
How Atkins Nutritionals Pioneered Deceiving Low Carb Dieters
Back in 2003 the FDA fined Atkins Nutritionals for leaving out the 20+ grams of glycerin (which metabolizes as a carbohydrate for people eating low carb diets) from the nutritional panel of the company's Advantage Bars. The settlement the company had to pay was a slap on the wrist. After the lawsuit was settled Atkins Nutritionals invented the "Net Carbs" designation that it has ever since placed on the front of its supposedly "low carb" product wrappers--but it does disclose the actual carb count on the nutritional label on the back of the product. The bars still claim to have 3 grams of carbs (in huge letters) on the package front, though the back lists 23 grams of carbs--the real carb content.
This ruse has been so successful, the company went on to license the use of this phrase and the Atkins "A" to other companies so that they too could continue deluding customers about the carb content of their foods. Atkins gets away with this because they include small print on back of these label explains that fiber and sugar alcohols have a "negligible effect on blood sugar". This, they suggest, means that you can ignore them and magically converts foods that have 23 grams of carbs--and the associated calories--into foods with a diet-friendly 3 grams.
If it were true that these foods--most of which are cookie and candy bar substitute--did not raise blood sugar, it would make them ideal for people with diabetes and others on a low carb diet.
However, this is rarely true. Some lucky people can eat these low carb treats and still lose weight on a low carb diet. But they tend to be people who are very obese, who could lose weight eating "low carb" diets with a much higher carbohydrate intake, since the amount of carbohydrate you can tolerate without causing a blood sugar spike depends on your body size. But over the past decades hundreds of people who stopped by the alt.support.diet.low-carb news group and other popular online low carb forums to ask why their weight loss has stopped cold, have learned that it is their indulgence in these sugar alcohol-laden low carb junk foods that have caused their long-term stalls.
Most Sugar Alcohols Raise Blood Sugar for All But People with Completely Normal Blood Sugar
All sugar alcohols save Erythritol, and particularly Maltitol, the most commonly used sugar alcohol, can have a very significant impact on blood sugar. This isn't speculation. It's a fact. These engineered starches digest more slowly than table sugar and corn syrup, but over a period from 2 to 4 hours they can digest. Many people with diabetes, who track any rise in their blood sugar with a blood sugar meter, find that these products cause a significant rise in their blood sugar, contrary to the label claims.
I'm one of them. My blood sugar rises almost as high when I eat a maltitol-sweetened Russell Stover "No Sugar" candy as it does if I eat a regular Russell Stover candy of same size. The only difference is that it takes two hours for the blood sugar rise to occur when I eat the "no sugar" candy compared to the one hour that it takes when I eat regular candy. So much for "truth in labeling."
I am not only person who has found this to be true. Fran McCullough warns readers of the very high blood sugar spikes reported by diabetics after eating glycerine-containing Atkins bars in her book, Living Low Carb.
A comprehensive review published by the Canadian Journal of Diabetes gives a very good overview of the scientific research into how sugar alcohols affect both normal people and people with diabetes.
Sugar Alcohols and Diabetes: A Review.
Note the finding, on Page 5, that research shows that chocolate bars sweetened with maltitol raised the blood sugar of normal people as high as did chocolate bars sweetened with sucrose--table sugar.
There are some people with diabetes who report that they don't see a blood sugar spike when they eat foods containing these sugar alcohols. Usually that is because they have enough second phase insulin production left to be able to mop up the glucose produced from the slow digestion of these sugar alcohols. As the years go by if their blood sugar remains high enough to damage their beta cells further, they may start seeing spikes at that 2-4 hour window after consumption.
So, clearly these products do not affect everyone in same way. For some people they are a godsend. For others, they turn out to be "Stall in a Box."
Why Do Sugar Alcohols Only Affect Some People?
Since it seems that only a subset of the population metabolizes sugar alcohols as sugar, it is quite possible that some people lack some enzyme(s) needed to digest them and turn them into blood sugar. Since those people's bodies can't turn these sugar alcohols into glucose, they do not experience a blood sugar rise when they eat them.
Lending some support to this idea is fact that some of the people who report that they did not experience a blood sugar rise when they ate a product with a sugar alcohol in it, add that they experienced intense diarrhea or gas later on. These are classic symptoms of what happens when starches pass undigested into lower gut where they may be fermented by bacteria (causing gas) or suck water out of cells lining the colon (causing diarrhea).
Many of us who do get blood sugar rise do not experience this diarrhea. Our digestive enzymes appear to be able to break down these hydrogenated starches into glucose--though given the time lag, this happens slowly.
Diabetes expert David Mendosa wrote a very interesting web page at http://www.mendosa.com/netcarbs.htm that points out "If the sugar alcohols had no impact on our blood glucose, they would have a glycemic index of zero.
With the the December 2003 publication of Geoffrey Livesey's amazing review of sugar alcohols, we now know a lot more about them than ever before. Mendosa cites the article, "Health potential of polyols as sugar replacers, with emphasis on low glycemic properties in Nutrition Research Reviews 2003;16:163-91.
Mendosa went on to say,
Only two of the sugar alcohols have a GI of zero, according to Livesey's research. These are mannitol and erythritol. Several others have a very low GI, but two maltitol syrups have a GI greater than 50. This is a higher GI value than that of spaghetti, orange juice, or carrots.
What about Glycerine?
Glycerine is another sweet additive that manufacturers add to low carb bars. Here again, you'll find that, because manufacturers claim glycerine does not raise blood sugar, they omit it in the carb section of the label information or, if they do list it, they do not include it in number of diet-counted "impact" carbs. (Glycerine is sometimes spelled Glycerin and is another name for glycerol.)
As Lee Rodgers, who for years was a much appreciated participant on the alt.support.diet.low-carb newsgroup and the proprietor of the Low Carb Retreat web site, explained that it is only true that Glycerine does not raise blood sugar when people are not low carbing. Rogers stated on his site:
1. When liver glycogen is full, glycerol is converted to fat.
2. When liver glycogen is empty, glycerol is converted to glucose.
3. And sometimes just goes right through without doing anything
In short, if you are eating a very low carb diet that puts you into a ketogenic state (having emptied your liver of glycogen,the form in which the body stores glucose) glycerine is likely to turn into blood sugar, and then, of course, it raises your blood sugar and requires that you provide insulin to bring it back down.
"Resistant Starch" Another Misleadingly Labeled Ingredient
Many of the products marketed as ideal for people watching their carbs include so-called resistant starches in their list of ingredients. These two are deducted from the "net carbs" they list on the front of the package. The Dreamfields Pasta company got away with selling "low carb" pasta for a decade using the claim that the 50 grams of carbs listed on the nutritional information panel were so magical they could be completely ignored. This made a lot of low carb dieters and people with diabetes pay two or three times as much for their magical "low carb" pasta as they would for regular pasta.
But in fact, those 50 grams of starch in Dreamfields pasta did break down over time and when they did, they raised blood sugar. Dreamfields had almost the identical effect on blood sugar as regular pasta which also digests very slowly, but, eventually does digest completely--into pure glucose.
Though they profited mightily for a decade, eventually the Dreamfields company ended up having to pay $7.9 million dollars when they lost a class action suit based on this deception. The products no longer claim to contain a tiny amount of "effective carbohydrate." Details of how it was possible to show how deceptive the product was, in court, can be found HERE.
What about Fiber?
Perhaps the most confusing part of new "net carbs" designation is that it combines sugar alcohols, resistant starches, and fiber in the same category. This is unfortunate because dietary fiber, unlike these other ingredients is not metabolized into a significant amount of calories and does not turn into blood sugar. Therefore it can safely be deducted from a food's total carb count.
But even here, a lot of caution is required. That's because labeling laws outside United States often treat fiber differently. In many European countries, fiber is already deducted from the label's total carb count. For example, imported Scandinavian bran crackers that list 3 grams of carbohydrate and 3 grams of fiber do not contain zero grams of carbohydrate. If they followed U.S. labeling conventions, their labels would show 6 grams of carbohydrate and 3 grams of fiber, since the European labels have already deducted the fiber from the total. This is also true of many imported chocolates.
To make it even more confusing, an increasing number of U.S. labels also deduct fiber from total counts, too. Many nuts do this, but so do premium chocolates. For example, despite fact that most labels for walnuts usually list "3 grams total carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber" walnuts are not a zero carb treat! They contain about 2 grams of carbohydrate per ounce.
In 2008 a brief scan of supermarket labels revealed that the habit of listing total carbohydrates with the fiber already deducted had spread to many common foods. I found this to be true on the labels of canned squash and beans, which are hardly premium European imports!
How To Detect if Fiber and/or Other Substances are Already Deducted on a Label
If you have any doubt about whether fiber or other ingredients in a food contributes significant carbohydrates to your diet, a simple solution is this. Use a "hidden carb calculator."
There are many on the web including some freeware you can download to your computer. Here is one:
Low Carb Diet Tools - Hidden Carbs Calculator
Plug in the "total carbohydrate" count from your label and if the actual carb count is higher than the stated count and matches the fiber total, assume the label already deducted carbs.
Net Carbs and Restaurant Food
Where "net carb" designation becomes truly dangerous is in restaurants because new "low carb" restaurant menus do not give you complete nutritional data or any hint of an item's ingredients, only the "net carb" count.
So for all you know, that "sugar free" "3 gram net carbs" cheese cake may contain 40 grams of maltitol, which is the equivalent of 30 grams of sugar.
Nor can you distinguish between a food that contains 10 grams of fiber and one that contains 10 grams of a lacitol, the sugar alcohol many dieters have found causes profound diarrhea.
All you know when you see that "net carbs" designation is that the carb count of the food you are about to eat is much higher than what restaurant would have to report were it giving you true, nutritional label carb counts. You can hope that the additional carbs are fiber, but you may very well be wrong.
Another problem with restaurant carb counts is that they do not reveal what the portion size is on which the carb count is based. In cases where I have been able to look up chain restaurant food on the web, the portion sizes, if given, are often different from the actual sized portion you receive in the restaurant. When the carb count applies to a 3 ounce serving, but your plate comes out from the kitchen carrying 9 ounces, the count is meaningless.
Hiding Carbs by Rounding
Sometimes the manufacturers hide carbs by citing a very small portion size because labeling law allows them to round down. This is very common with trans fats too, which is why you see a lot of labels where the amount of trans fat listed is "0" but the ingredient lists contains hydrogenated oils--a sure sign the food does contain trans fat.
With rounding, the company can claim 0 g of anything where there is less than 1 full gram.
This can really hurt you. For example, a cup of light cream has 7 grams of carbs, though the label may say 0 g based on a tablespoon portion size. Powdered artificial sweeteners contain about one half gram of sugar per teaspoon because they use maltodextrin, a form of glucose, to make them powdery. If you cook with a cup of powdered Splenda you will be getting about 24 grams of carbohydrate, which is what you'd find in six teaspoons of sugar.
Avoid All Processed "Low Carb" Junk Food Until Your New Diet is Established
If you are just starting out low carbing, you should treat any supposedly "low carb" product that cites net carbs rather than total carbs with great caution. If you are one of people who do metabolize sugar alcohols, these "low impact carbs" will turn into regular, old, high-impact glucose, and eating a couple of these treats each day can easily derail your low carb diet by adding another 20 to 40 grams of carbohydrate to your intake.
That's why you might be wise to try cutting your carbs without eating any of these suspect foods during the first few weeks of your diet. Do this until you have become accustomed to how your body feels when your blood sugar has stabilized on a truly lower carb regimen.
If you crave a sweet treat during these first few weeks, try one of truly low carb treats and snacks you can find by following the links HERE. Do this until you've gotten the hang of what cutting back on carbohydrates feels like to your body.
Once you've gotten comfortable with a way of eating that lowers your blood sugar and makes it easier to limit your food consumption (if you are dieting for weight loss), you can test these commercial "low carb" products to see what effect they have on you. If you maintain health blood sugars and/or keep losing weight after introducing them, you can relax. You are one of lucky ones who can, in fact, treat them as having "low impact" carbs. If you don't, well, for you there's no free lunch. Continue making your own truly low-in-carb treats--your blood sugar and body fat will thank you.
The Shameful "Diabetic" and "Sugar Free" Foods That Harm Uninformed People with Diabetes
If you are diabetic, there is one last peril you face. Drug stores and supermarkets are full of cookies, candies, and pastries marketed as being "sugar free" and ideal for people with diabetes. Those who love you and wish to give you a special treat may pay the inflated prices these products command and present them to you as gifts.
These products are sweetened with the sugar alcohols we described above, which may mean that overindulging in them may give you a monumental case of the runs, but that is only the beginning of what makes them a toxic "treat" for people trying to lower their blood sugars. That's because while these products don't contain table sugar, as advertised, they often contain huge amounts of flour, which of course will raise blood sugar just as high as table sugar once it is digested. A low carb muffin may easily contain 60 grams or more of carbohydrate, no matter what was used to sweeten it.
Those who are the least educated and most prone to developing terrible complications are those who are most likely to buy and consume these foods. The people who market these products know what they are doing. In a just world, they would end up in prison.
Since you are reading this web site, you probably are more aware than the average person with Type 2 diabetes. And if you have access to a blood sugar meter and test strips, and have gotten into the habit of reading nutritional labels carefully, you probably won't fall for this particular scam. But do warn your friends and make sure that your coworkers and family who know you have diabetes don't give you products marketed as being suitable for people with diabetes as gifts. A nice box of nuts or premium dark chocolates have a lot less carbohydrate and a lot more pleasure potential. If you avoid sweets entirely, premium imported cheeses and meats make a nice gift, too.
When In Doubt Get Our Your Blood Sugar Meter
With the help of the meter, people with diabetes don't have to guess how any "diabetes friendly" food affects them. Test the food and see what it does to your blood sugars. But when you do test, be sure to test any products containing sugar alcohols 2 and 3 hours after eating. Testing only at one hour after eating may be too early and you may miss blood sugar spikes they cause.With resistant starches like those found in pasta, you may have to test as many as 5 hours after eating and you should also look at your fasting blood sugar the next morning. Several people have reported that while they didn't spike after eating pasta, their fasting blood sugars were significantly elevated the next morning.
"Gluten Free" Does Not Mean Lower in Carbs
There was a time back in the late 1990s when I first started dealing with my diabetes, where people who cut gluten out of their diets reported dramatic improvements in their blood sugar. This rarely had anything to do with the gluten, but happened because it was impossible to eat bread, cakes, cookies, or any other wheat containing foods on a gluten free diet in those days. That is no longer the case. The supermarkets are full of gluten free grain-based foods which in many cases have more, not less carbohydrate per serving. If cutting out gluten makes you feel better, go for it, but don't expect it to lower your blood sugar if you base your diet on these processed wheat substitute foods.
Hunger is a Warning Sign
No matter what you see on your scale or observe on a blood sugar meter, be alert for an increase in your hunger level when you eat any of these "net carbs" foods. My own experience and that of some other low carb dieters who have reported this on the newsgroup is that some of "low carb" products made with sugar alcohols cause an increase in hunger that is out of proportion to the blood sugar readings they produce. I have found this especially noticeable with foods containing lacitol, including breath mints which claim to only contain one gram of sugar alcohol.
If you notice yourself suddenly getting hungry, or just plain eating more food after you have introduced a new "low carb" treat into your diet, back off it for a few days and see what happens to your hunger level. If it goes down, you'll need to treat these foods with caution. The main reason people who don't have diabetes cut back on carbs is to eliminate the hunger cravings that make dieting so difficult.
Don't Forget the Extra Calories
Even if you can eat snack products containing sugar alcohols without experiencing blood sugar spikes or hunger cravings, it's worth giving some thought to the question of how good an idea it is to fill your diet up with calorie-dense low carb junk food filled with Frankenfood chemical additives, especially if you are trying to lose weight.
Though the best selling diet book authors make it sound as if low carb diets somehow magically "melt away fat" this is not true. Cutting way back on carbs evens out blood sugar which eliminates hunger and makes it very easy to eat a lot less food. But to achieve long term weight loss you must eat less than you burn each day.
As you get closer to your weight goal, this becomes more and more evident. The smaller you are, the less food your body burns. As a result, most people find they cannot get last the 20 pounds off without watching their calories closely and eating only 9 - 10 times their body weight in calories. (i.e. if you weigh 140 lbs you may find you have to eat as little as 1269 to 1400 calories a day to lose more, depending on speed of your metabolism and your activity level.)
With that in mind, you can see why, independent of the blood sugar issue, that snack bar with its 240 calories you eat every day between meals may have serious repercussions for your diet--it is adding 1,680 calories a week--enough calories to create 1/2 pounds of fat. It's even worse if you "make room" for those junk carbs in your diet by eliminating the carbs from nutritious foods like the high fiber, low carb vegetables that are an important part of the diet of long-term successful low carb dieters.