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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 28, 2004

'Net carb' on a food label can be meaningless or misleading

By Amy Tousman

Q. What does "net carbs" mean?

A. The words "net carb," "effective carb," or "impact carb" appear on the labels of many products marketed to low-carbohydrate dieters. They include low-carbohydrate versions of chips, candies and breads. Even Subway advertises "Atkins-friendly" sandwich wraps with 11 grams of net carb.

No legal definition exists for the terms "low carbohydrate" or "net carbs." Any food can be called low-carbohydrate, no matter how much carbohydrate it contains.

Some manufacturers have stopped counting the carbohydrates in fiber and artificial sweeteners. They call the remaining carbohydrates, "effective" "impact" or "net" carbs.

These terms deceive you into thinking a product contains less in carbohydrates than it actually does. Many so-called "low-carbohydrate" foods have as much carbohydrate as their regular counterparts. The logic is that certain carbohydrates have little effect on blood sugar and therefore don't need to be counted.

This is misleading. Although important to someone with diabetes, blood sugar is not the main issue for someone trying to lose weight. Carbohydrates in sweeteners such as sorbitol, mannitol and glycerine contain calories and should be counted.

Many foods marketed to low-carbohydrate dieters have as many calories as the regular versions of these foods. They have no special weight-losing properties. Many are low in fiber, a substance that is helpful for weight control.

Fiber has no calories and can be subtracted from the total carbohydrates.

Read the "Nutrition Facts" label to find a food's total carbohydrate and calorie content. If the front of a package lists only one or two grams of net carbs, the back of the package may show a different picture. For example, the Atkins Advantage diet bar claims two grams of net carbs, but the Nutrition Facts label shows 240 calories and 21 grams of total carbs.

Products labeled low-carb often cost more than regular products with similar carbohydrate contents. Michelob Ultra beer is marketed as a low-carbohydrate beer, has one less calorie and half a gram less carbohydrate than Miller Lite beer, and costs more. People buy these products because they want to lose weight without giving up their favorite foods.

Choosing low-calorie, high-fiber foods such as fruits, veggies, and whole grains is more important than counting carbs. Losing weight is not about replacing one empty calorie snack with another, it's about making healthy lifestyle changes.

Amy Tousman is a registered dietitian with the Health Education Center of Straub Clinic and Hospital. Hawai'i experts in traditional medicine, naturopathic medicine and diet take turns writing the Prescriptions column.

Send your questions to: Prescriptions, Island Life, The Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802; fax 535-8170; e-mail islandlife@honoluluadvertiser.com.