Will counting net carbs help or hurt weight loss efforts?
When is a carb not a carb? That's the question many
carb-conscious dieters are facing as they struggle to keep their carb counts
within the strict limits recommended by Atkins and other low-carb diets.
By Amy Engeler
At 3 a.m., with all the houses dark up and down her winding suburban street in West Warwick, Rhode Island, Jo-Ann Frey, 37, lights a candle so she can see well enough to dust her furniture. Careful not to turn on any lights or make noise that might wake up her family, she drifts from room to room with her candle and cleaning supplies, waiting until she feels sleepy enough to climb back into bed. That feeling doesn't come -- and when she hears the alarm in the bedroom go off...
In an effort to cash in on the low-carb craze, food
manufacturers have invented a new category of carbohydrates known as "net
carbs," which promises to let dieters eat the sweet and creamy foods they
crave without suffering the carb consequences.
But the problem is that there is no legal definition of the
"net," "active," or "impact" carbs popping up on food
labels and advertisements. The only carbohydrate information regulated by the
FDA is provided in the Nutrition Facts label, which lists total carbohydrates
and breaks them down into dietary fiber and sugars.
Any information or claims about carbohydrate content that
appear outside that box have not been evaluated by the FDA.
"These terms have been made up by food companies," says
Wahida Karmally, DrPH, RD, director of nutrition at the Irving Center for
Clinical Research at Columbia University. "It's a way for the manufacturers
of these products to draw attention to them and make them look appealing by
saying, 'Look, you can eat all these carbs, but you're really not impacting
your health, so to speak.'"
Although the number of products touting "net carbs"
continues to grow, nutrition experts say the science behind these claims is
fuzzy, and it's unclear whether counting net carbs will help or hurt weight
What's in a Net Carb?
The concept of net carbs is based on the principle that not all
carbohydrates affect the body in the same manner.
Some carbohydrates, like simple or refined starches and sugars,
are absorbed rapidly and have a high glycemic index, meaning they cause blood
sugar levels to quickly rise after eating. Excess simple carbohydrates are
stored in the body as fat. Examples of these include potatoes, white bread,
white rice, and sweets.
Other carbohydrates, such as the fiber found in whole grains,
fruits, and vegetables, move slowly through the digestive system, and much of
it isn't digested at all (insoluble fiber).
Also in this category of largely indigestible carbohydrates are
sugar alcohols, such as mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and other polyols, which
are modified alcohol molecules that resemble sugar. These substances are
commonly used as artificial sweeteners.
In calculating net carbs, most manufacturers take the total
number of carbohydrates a product contains and subtract fiber and sugar
alcohols because these types of carbohydrates are thought to have a minimal
impact on blood sugar levels.
For example, the label on PowerBar's new double chocolate
flavor "ProteinPlus Carb Select" bar says it has
"2 grams of impact carbohydrates." The Nutrition Facts label on the
product says it has 30 grams of total carbohydrates.
Just below the nutrition facts box, the
"impact carb facts" box provided by the manufacturer explains,
"Fiber and sugar alcohols have a minimal effect on blood sugar. For those
watching their carb intake, count 2 grams." That's 30 grams minus the bar's
27 grams of sugar alcohols and 1 gram of fiber.