Written by Deanna Wolfe
Have you ever been confused by the difference between total carbohydrates and net carbohydrates? What do food manufacturers mean when stating “5 g net carbs” on their product label? And why do some dieters count net carbs vs total carbs?
Net carbs are the total number of carbohydrates in a product, minus the fiber and the sugar alcohols (those ingredients that end in –ol). Manufacturers will subtract these types of carbohydrates because fiber and sugar alcohols are thought to have a minimal impact on blood sugar. However, let’s discuss why total carbohydrates are what matters and why you shouldn’t be concerned with net carbs.
5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Be Concerned with Net Carbs:
1. ‘Net Carbs’ does not have a true definition. The FDA does not regulate this term. The only information regulated by the FDA is in the Nutrition Facts label, which lists total carbohydrates, breaking them down into fiber and sugar. Recently, food manufacturers have requested the FDA set an official definition of ‘low carb’ as well as ‘net carbs’.
2. According to the American Diabetes Association, sugar alcohols have an unpredictable effect on blood sugar levels. What does this mean? The effect of sugar alcohols on blood sugar levels differs for each and everybody. As a registered dietitian, we teach people with diabetes to count sugar alcohols (only if 5 or more grams in the product) as having half the impact of regular sugar. So a protein bar with 23 grams of carbohydrates with 10 grams of fiber and 6 grams of sugar alcohol would have a net carb count of 10 grams. The fact is that the effect of sugar alcohols is not the same for each person and can affect each person’s blood glucose differently, making it hard to determine the exact amount of carbohydrates that are being absorbed when determining net carbs.
3. Net carbs were first used for people with diabetes, to plan for insulin management, and later for people on low-carb fad diets (ie Atkins) and not necessary for the average dieter to worry about. When only looking at net carbs, many dieters may forget the fact that there are actually 180 calories in that protein bar, not just 10 g net carbs.
4. Counting total carbohydrates is simpler. Taking the time to subtract the amount of fiber from all of your foods and recalculating the caloric content is time-consuming! And it’s more important to understand where all your carbs are coming from, while varying your intake of carb sources, to understand where your overall calories are coming from.
5. Green vegetables still have carbs. I’ve seen many clients eat massive and unlimited amounts of vegetables thinking they have no carbohydrates, and therefore no calories, when in reality these portions were adding up to 30-40 grams of carbohydrates (or 120-160 calories)! Remember that even foods high in fiber still have carbs and contribute to your overall calorie intake.
Total carbohydrates on a food product are important to take into consideration, and it is important to understand why the label includes all types of carbohydrate. But because all types of carbohydrate can affect blood glucose, and because carbohydrates contribute to overall calorie intake, it is important to look at the grams of total carbohydrates, and not net carbohydrates when planning a healthy diet.