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Good Carbs, Bad Carbs: Why Carbohydrates Matter to You

The right type of carbohydrates can boost your health!

Avoid Excess “Added Sugars”

“Added sugars, also known as caloric sweeteners, are sugars and syrups that are added to foods at the table or during processing or preparation (such as high fructose corn syrup in sweetened beverages and baked products),” explains Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokeswoman with the American Dietetic Association.

Added sugars supply calories but few or no nutrients, Gerbstadt says.

“Americans are very aware of low-fat diets and because of that we’ve been eating more fat-free and low-fat products,” notes Shanthy Bowman, USDA food scientist and author of a recently published study on sugar in the American diet.

“But what many people don't know is that in many of these products, sugar is being substituted for fat, so we've really been trading fat for sugar,” Bowman says.

The USDA recommends that we get no more than 6% to 10% of our total calories from added sugar -- that’s about nine teaspoons a day for most of us.

Use the Nutrition Label to Track Your Carbohydrates

The Nutrition Facts section on food labels can help you sort the good carbs from the bad carbs. Here’s what to look for on the Nutrition Facts label.

Total Carbohydrate. For tracking the total amount of carbohydrate in the food, per serving, look for the line that says “Total Carbohydrate.” You’ll find that often the grams of “fiber,” grams of “sugars” and grams of “other carbohydrate” will add up to the grams of “total carbohydrate” on the label.

Dietary Fiber. The line that says Dietary Fiber tells you the total amount of fiber in the food, per serving. Dietary fiber is the amount of carbohydrate that is indigestible and will likely pass through the intestinal tract without being absorbed.

Sugars. “Sugars” tells you the total amount of carbohydrate from sugar in the food, from all sources -- natural sources like lactose and fructose as well as added sugars like high-fructose corn syrup. It’s important to distinguish between natural sugars and added sugars. For example, the average 1% low-fat milk label will list 15 grams of “sugar” per cup. Those grams come from the lactose (milk sugars) not from added sweeteners.

To get an idea of how many grams of sugar on the label come from added sugars – such as high fructose corn syrup or white or brown sugar -- check the list of ingredients on the label. See if any of those sweeteners are in the top three or four ingredients. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so the bulk of most food is made up of the first few ingredients.

Other Carbohydrate. The category "other carbohydrate" represents the digestible carbohydrate that is not considered a sugar (natural or otherwise). 



Sugar Alcohols. Some product labels also break out “sugar alcohols” under “Total Carbohydrate.” In some people, sugar alcohol carbohydrates can cause intestinal problems such as gas, cramping, or diarrhea. If you look on the ingredient label, the sugar alcohols are listed as lactitol, mannitol, maltitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and others. Many “sugar free” or “reduced calorie” foods contain some sugar alcohols even when another alternative sweetener like Splenda is in the product.

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Reviewed on October 30, 2008

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