Foods: Less Than Meets the Eye
few years ago the cry was "low-fat" or "nonfat,"
as new food products came on the market positioned to appeal
to the weight-conscious and health-conscious. You could avoid
most fat but still eat your ice cream and cookies. In some ways
the trend to low-fat and fat-free foods was beneficial; in other
ways it was not. Nonfat milk is a good thing, but nonfat junk
food is still junk food, of course. Many consumers failed to
notice that a low-fat cookie often has as many calories as the
regular kind, and many assumed it was okay to eat the whole
the craze is for low-carbohydrate foods. If you've been
to the grocery store lately, or even to McDonald's or
Blimpie, you've seen promotions for "low-carb"
foods. Many breads, sandwiches, muffins, pasta, cereals, tortillas,
pizza crusts, beer, cakes, cookies, and other foods now bear
"low-carb" labels. While the health claims are seldom
spelled out, the implications are clear.
you're following a low-carb diet (such as Atkins) that
forbids or severely limits bread, pasta, and other starchy foods,
especially those made with white flour, you might think, well,
here's a way to eat some bread and still stay on the diet.
Indeed, many low-carb products are sold under the Atkins brand
name. Or perhaps you're not on any diet but are just calorie-conscious.
You may conclude, logically enough, that a food lower in carbs
is also lower in calories. Or you may buy the new stuff because
you're attracted to new products, and you think that there's
a law against false claims on food labels, so you conclude that
low-carb claims must be (a) true and (b) meaningful.
fact, "low-carb" is not what it seems. And any benefits
these foods might offer for weight loss or nutrition are debatable,
at best. If you replace carbohydrates with protein (that's
the main change), you still have just as many calories. Furthermore,
the labels are, essentially, meaningless. The FDA has no definition
of "low-carbohydrate" and has never approved any low-carb
labels. Any food can be so labeled.
down the carbs
how manufacturers reduce the carbs in various foods:
n They replace refined wheat flour with soy flour (higher in
protein), soy protein, or wheat protein.
They add extra fiber, such as wheat bran, oat bran, or other
fiber (this is not a bad thing, but read on).
They add high-fat ingredients such as nuts (again, not so
terrible: nuts are good food, containing healthy fats).
They replace sugar with sugar alcohols (maltitol, lactitol,
or sorbitol) or artificial sweeteners. This has been going
on a long time—ever hear of sugarless or "dietetic"
For beers, they use certain chemicals in the brewing process
to reduce carbohydrates in the brew. But the result is not
very different from "lite" beers, long a market
the difference real, though?
of these changes are unhealthy. But these products end up having
nearly as many calories as their regular counterparts, and cutting
calories is still the key to weight control. Protein has as
many calories as carbs do, and fat has more than twice as many
products often have nearly as many carbs, too, but the labels
disguise this fact with several tricks. Most often they subtract
certain carbs, and provide a separate section listing a lower
number, which designates the remaining ones "effective
carbs" or "net impact carbs." The idea is that
since fiber, for instance, doesn't affect blood sugar
the way other carbs do, it doesn't count. So if a food
has 10 grams of carbs, but 6 grams are fiber, the manufacturer
simply subtracts the 6 and claims only 4 "net impact"
carbs. (Sometimes the results are clearly impossible. Some low-carb
bread labels, for example, claim that nearly all the carbs are
fiber, yet the first ingredient is always some sort of flour—a
source of "regular" carbohydrates.) The calories in
sugar alcohols, too, can be subtracted, according to this logic,
because they don't have the same effect on blood sugar
as regular sugar. None of this is allowed by the FDA.
sleight-of-hand can distract you from an accurate comparison
between low-carb foods and conventional ones. Here are just
A slice of "low-carb" Atkins bread, for instance,
has 60 calories and 8 grams of total carbs, though it claims
to have only 3 "net impact" carbs. A slice of a
conventional "diet" bread typically has 50 calories
and 10 grams of carbs. That isn't a significant difference.
A 1-ounce low-carb chocolate bar has 155 calories and 12 grams
of fat, but no sugar; it claims to have only 1 "net impact"
carb. A regular bar has 150 calories and 10 grams of fat.
(Some choice!) Low-carb candies are actually pretty much the
same as the sugar-free candies that have been on the market
A 12-ounce can of Michelob Ultra ("low-carb") has
95 calories and 2.6 grams of carbs. Miller Lite has 96 calories
and 3.2 grams of carbs. Coors Lite has 102 calories and 5
grams of carbs. The differences are tiny. In effect, what's
new is the label, not the product.
way to tell
problem: there is no legal definition of a low-carb food. The
FDA has defined "low-fat," for instance, but any food,
even Wonder Bread, can be labeled "low-carbohydrate."
Moreover, fiber is supposed to be listed as part of the carbohydrates—not
subtracted from it. The FDA does not define nutrients according
to the effects they have on blood sugar, and for good reason.
As we explained last month in our article about the glycemic
index, these effects vary widely, depending on what's
in your entire meal. There simply isn't any accurate way
to calculate it for a food label. In any case, there is little
or no evidence for the claim that some types of carbs are more
likely to cause weight gain than others just because they affect
blood sugar faster.
good idea buried in the low-carb craze: It is better to choose
high-fiber products over those made of refined wheat (white)
flour. But that's hardly a new idea. If you want more
fiber in your bread, there are lots of good conventional choices,
made of whole wheat or other whole grains, on the shelves.
costs more, and tastes worse
then there's the question of price. Low-carb almost always
means high price. Low-carb beers cost more than lite. One low-carb
breakfast cereal costs nearly four times as much per serving
as regular cereals. Atkins breads cost twice as much as most
regular breads. And most low-carb foods sacrifice a lot in taste
and texture. (Not the candies, apparently, where chocolate flavors
mask a lot.) Maybe this is a good thing—people will eat
less of these foods, and the fad won't last.
the meantime, our advice: Don't be fooled by low-carb
foods. There's no evidence that they'll help you
lose weight. They are not significantly more nutritious or less
caloric than many regular foods. And they eat up food dollars
better spent on plain good healthy foods such as fresh fruits
Reference Source 98