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Back to A Beginner's Guide to Low Carbing

How to Read a Food Label - Just the facts? Not quite!

Cheri received permission from Atkins to re-print this text.

To ensure that consumers know what is in the foods they buy, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that the packaging of every manufactured food product display certain information. For starters, ingredients must be listed in descending order of weight. Labeling must also include a "Nutrition Facts" panel (see example, below). Although the intent is informational, such labels do not supply all the facts, especially when it comes to carbohydrates. But once you know the secret to figuring out how many carbs really count when you follow the Atkins Nutritional Approach™, the labels will become easy reading.

Backing Into a Carb Count

Almost everything displayed on the Nutrition Facts panel is based on specific laboratory procedures, called assays, regulated by the FDA. The quantity of fat, protein, ash and water can all be directly and exactly assayed. (Water and ash need not be listed on nutrition panels.) Carbohydrates, however, are the exception. Instead, the amount of carbohydrate is arrived at only after the above four components are directly computed. In other words, what is not fat, protein, ash or water is called carbohydrate.

All Carbs Are Not Created Equal

To complicate matters still further, carbohydrates are comprised of several subgroups, which include dietary fiber, sugar, sugar alcohol, and other carbohydrates—a kitchen-sink grouping of gums, lignans, organic acids and flavonoids. (These individual items can be assayed.) The FDA requires that a nutrition label include the total carbohydrates. The amount of dietary fiber and sugar must also be listed. However, the law does not require that other carbohydrate subcategories appear. Some manufacturers voluntarily include the subcategories of sugar alcohol and "other carbohydrates."

Not all types of carbohydrates behave the same way in your body. For example, when your body digests table sugar, it turns it immediately into blood sugar. Other carbs, such as sugar alcohols, have a minimal impact on blood-sugar levels; still other carbs, such as dietary fiber, pass through your body without having any impact on blood-sugar level. To date, the FDA has not focused on these important biochemical differences and treats all carbohydrates alike.

The Impact on Blood Sugar

When you look at a food label, you do not see a number for the carbs that have an impact on your blood-sugar level, what we call "the carbs that you need to count when you do Atkins," or the Net Carb count. (For more on Net Carbs, see The Skinny on Net Carbs.) Fortunately, you don't have to be a food scientist or math whiz to figure it out. To calculate the carbohydrates that count, simply subtract the number of grams of dietary fiber from the total number of carbohydrate grams. That's right. A little simple subtraction, and you've got the number. Actually, this number is a conservative one because most labels don't give you the additional information you would need to do further subtraction, such as the amount of sugar-alcohol grams contained in the product.

What Is a Serving?

There is another rather sneaky aspect of nutrition labels. In the old days, when you were still drinking such things, you may have purchased a 20-ounce bottle of flavored ice tea sweetened with corn syrup. That's one serving, right? Wrong! Look carefully at the Nutrition Facts label and you will see that a single serving is calculated not as the 20 ounces in the bottle but as eight ounces. You are expected to share that bottle with a friend and a half. That means that all those calculations about carbohydrate content, sugar content and calories are for only eight ounces, not the whole bottle.

So, whenever you check a label to make sure you are not going over your daily carb count, double-check the serving size as well. And if you are planning to have more than what is considered one serving, multiply the adjusted carb count by the appropriate number of servings.

Here is what else you should be aware of on a nutrition label:

  • serving size (if you have more than one serving, be sure to add in the carbs)
  • total carbohydrates expressed in grams
  • amount of dietary fiber expressed in grams (subtract from total number of carbs to get the net carb count)
  • sugar expressed in grams

Full Disclosure

At Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., we try diligently to provide customers with all the information they need to do Atkins. Therefore, our labels include the net grams of carbohydrates (those that impact your blood sugar) as well as total carb grams. For example, an Atkins Advantage™ Bar may contain 19 grams of total grams of carbohydrate as defined by the FDA. But, of that total, 15.5 grams comprise dietary fiber, sugar alcohols and other indigestible carbohydrates, for a net carb count of 3.5 grams.

Disclaimer: All content found on "A Beginner's Guide to Low Carbing" is the opinion or suggestion of Cheri and therefore is not necessarily that of Netrition. Cheri received permission to reproduce and distribute any content that was not written by her. Netrition is not responsible for any consequences incurred by anyone following directions or instructions found on these pages. Netrition and Cheri do not claim to be health experts, physicians or dietitians. We encourage you to consult your physician if you have any questions or concerns of a medical nature. Netrition is not responsible for the information on these pages and is not responsible for any typographical errors. The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, or otherwise used, without written permission of content owners.

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