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What Does Low-Carb Really Mean?

FDA will soon weigh in on low-carb food and beverage claims.

WebMD Feature

Are you craving chocolate, but trying to stick to a low-carb diet? No problem. A flood of "low-carb" treats from beer to pasta and even candy has hit supermarket shelves in recent months to fulfill the cravings of dieters who are counting carbohydrate grams rather than calories.

With claims such as "low-carb," "reduced carb," and "carb-smart," these products promise to help Atkins and other low-carb diet devotees stay true to their weight-loss plan while satisfying their hunger for traditionally high-carb foods.

But is a low-carb beer any better for you than the regular version? What does low- or reduced-carb content really mean?

That's where experts say the marketing is way ahead of the science. Unlike "low-calorie" or "reduced-fat" claims, the FDA has not legally defined what "low-carbohydrate" means.

Next week, the agency will finally weigh in on the low-carb debate when its Obesity Working Group presents a report to the FDA commissioner on Feb. 12. The group is expected to recommend stricter labeling requirements to help consumers make smarter food choices.

Industry and consumer groups have called on the FDA to not only provide a definition for low-carb claims but also address the use of implied low-carb claims and "net carb" counts on product labels.

"People assume that they can't gain weight on foods with claims like 'carb-aware' and 'carb-smart,' just as they assumed that 'fat-free' on the package meant 'fat-free' on your waist," says Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), in a news release. "It's a huge leap of faith to assume that the calories in a lower-carb food don't count."

How Many Carbs Do You Need?

According to Institute of Medicine, the organization that sets the recommended daily intake of nutrients, adults and children over the age of 1 should eat 130 grams of carbs a day.

However, not surprisingly, most people exceed this daily amount. Depending on age, the IOM says that men typically eat about 200 to 330 grams of carbs a day while women eat around 180 to 230 grams daily.

Carbohydrates are the brain's primary fuel source and the daily minimum requirement is based on this need. The Institute notes that people following an extremely low-carb diet may not be getting enough daily carbs.

What Is 'Low-Carb?'

Experts say that until the FDA takes a stand on the carbohydrate issue, it's up to consumers to educate themselves on how to interpret low-carb claims on product labels. By law, food manufacturers are required to list the number of total carbohydrates in a product on the nutrition facts label. But makers of low-carb products often include another box next to the nutrition label that has information on the "net carb" content of the food.

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