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The Daily Tonic: What Are ‘Net Carbs,’ And What Do They Mean For Diets?

The Daily Tonic is a two to five minute read sharing science backed health news and tips, all while getting you to crack a smile or even lol on occasion.

The simplest definition of net carbs is a food’s total carbohydrate content minus the fiber and sugar alcohol content. For example, if a keto brownie has 30 grams of carbs, but 20 grams are sugar alcohols, and 5 grams are fiber content, the keto brownie will claim to have only 5g of net carbs. 

(30g total carbs – 20g of sugar alcohols – 5g of fiber = 5g Net Carbs)

The manufacturer of that keto brownie will heavily market the fact that their snack boasts only 5 grams of these “special” carbs, but does that really matter? Or should you be more concerned with the nutrition label’s 30 grams of total carbs? 

The concept is based on the principle that not all carbs impact the body in the same way. Some carbs, such as simple or refined sugars, are absorbed rapidly by the body and are more likely to cause a steep blood sugar and insulin spike. Other carbs, like the insoluble fiber found in fruits, move through the digestive system very slowly and pass through mostly undigested. 

Net carb proponents will argue that the net carb content of a food is more indicative of whether a food is high-carb or low-carb because it only takes into account the carbs that your body will readily absorb. 

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If your body can’t absorb 25g of the carbs in that keto brownie, should they count? As far as net carbs are concerned, that is a 5g carb brownie. Sign me up! 

The key, as always, is avoiding processed foods — even if they claim to be “keto friendly” or something similar

If only it were that simple. The problem with net carbs is that there is still no legal or regulatory definition of what constitutes a net carb. When looking at a food label, the only carbohydrate information the FDA regulates is what you see on the nutrition label. That big shiny “5g of NET CARBS” on the front of the label is a completely unregulated marketing claim. 

Foods with low net carb numbers are also commonly sweetened using artificial sweeteners. While the jury is still out on whether these are harmful to your health, some research suggests that they may not be the best thing for your gut health. 

And finally, low net carbs do not necessarily mean a food is low-calorie. While healthy nutrition cannot be simply boiled down into “calorie in, calorie out,” your total calorie intake does play a key role in dictating whether or not you will be able to maintain a healthy weight. Going back to our brownie example, if it has 350 calories per serving but only 5g of net carbs, it might not be the smartest choice. 

The key takeaway? As keto and other low-carb diets have gained popularity over the past few years, food manufacturers have used tricky language to cash in. Foods with low net carbs are usually processed, packaged foods high in calories and sweetened with sugar alcohols. 

Does that mean you should cut those foods out altogether? Not necessarily, but it does mean that a brownie is still a brownie, even if it has the word “keto” in front of it.

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