With approximately 30 to 40 million Americans trying to control their weight by counting carbohydrates, "low-carb" has become big business. As a result, food manufacturers have been busy introducing a variety of low-carbohydrate products at record pace. In the last two years alone, more than 1500 new low-carbohydrate products have been introduced in U.S. food markets. It’s projected that this year alone, sales of specially marketed low-carb foods will reach $30 billion.
How do manufactures convert "high-carb" foods into "low-carb" food? In some cases they replace some of the refined white wheat flour with soy flour, soy protein or wheat protein, or they add extra fiber. In other cases, they replace some or all of the sugar in the product with sugar alcohols (e.g., maltitol, lactitol, sorbitol, manitol) or artificial sweeteners. They may also add high-fat ingredients such as nuts. For beers, they use certain chemicals in the brewing process to reduce carbohydrates in the brew, also known as "lite" beer. In restaurants, they may replace the bun with a lettuce leaf, hollow out the bagel, or omit the potato.
What exactly counts as a "low-carb" food? Currently, it’s whatever the buyer will believe. To date, there is no agreed upon definition for "low-carbohydrate" or the popular marketing term "net-carbs". The Food and Drug Administration is working on these issues and hopes to have standardized definitions in place by spring of 2005. Until then, the FDA considers the use of "low-carb" claims on food labels to be illegal.
To get around this, many food manufacturers are using the term "net-carbs" on food labels to refer to the total grams of carbohydrates per serving minus the grams of fiber and sugar alcohols. The reasoning behind this calculation is that fiber and sugar alcohols supposedly have minimal impact on blood sugar levels, and therefore should not count toward daily carbohydrate allotments. While this may be true for fiber, it’s certainly not true for all sugar alcohols, particularly manitol, which raises blood sugar significantly.
A potential pitfall for both low-carb foods and low net carb foods is that not all low-carb foods are equal. While some are low-calorie as well as low-carb and may be beneficial for people controlling calories and carbohydrates to lose weight, others are still high in fat and therefore may be high in calories, too. The basic principle for carbohydrate counters is the same as with any type of weight-loss effort – no matter what type of eating plan you follow, be it low-carbohydrate, low-fat, etc., weight loss will only occur when the number of calories consumed are less than the number burned.
Similarities to the influx of low-carbohydrate foods can be drawn to the flood of low-fat foods introduced during the low-fat craze a decade ago. Many dieters mistakenly thought they could eat low-fat, yet highly processed foods without paying attention to calories. In some cases, rather than losing weight, dieters found themselves gaining more weight. Today, many of the low-carbohydrate "goodies" have the potential to create a similar problem. Notably, according to a product-tracking firm, nearly 60 percent of low-carbohydrate products introduced in the U.S. during the last five years are classified as bakery, confectionary, dessert, or snack items.
If you are following a low-carbohydrate approach to eating, remember that a treat should still be considered a treat no matter how many carbohydrates it contains. Not only can low-carb versions of snacks and desserts be high in calories, but like traditional snacks and desserts they also tend to be low in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Also, when selecting low-carbohydrate products, be sure to note the calorie content, which along with the carbohydrate content is found on the Nutrition Facts panel of the food label.
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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension