The Low Down on Low-Carb Products

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Is low-carb beer, bread, or candy any better for you?

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

Hard-bodied men and women working out at the gym may not seem like typical beer drinkers, but that's exactly what today's carb-conscious marketing campaigns would like you to believe.

A flood of low-carb beer, pasta, bread, candy, and even ice cream has hit supermarket shelves in recent months to fulfill the cravings of dieters who are counting carbohydrate grams rather than calories. The products promise to help Atkins and other low-carb diet devotees to, "Lose the carbs. Not the taste," according to a Michelob Ultra Low Carbohydrate Beer billboard campaign.

But will a low-carb beer really help you lose your beer belly? Or will trading your favorite ice cream for a lower carbohydrate version make you healthier? In a word, "no," say the experts.

"I think a lot of people think that with low-carb snacks and desserts they can do an end run around a healthy diet, but you can't," says Larry Lindner, an instructor at the school of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Boston. "It's not going to work in the long run, and it's certainly not going to be good for your body."

In fact, Lindner recently compared a sampling of low-carb products with their regular counterparts and found they often contain virtually the same number of calories, despite the much higher price tag for the low-carb versions.

For example, a 12-ounce bottle of Miller Lite has 96 calories and 3.2 grams of carbohydrates, and a bottle of Michelob Ultra Low Carbohydrate has only one less calorie and about half a gram fewer carbohydrates but costs 12% more. In comparison, regular beers typically contain about 150 calories and more than 10 grams of carbohydrates per serving.

"When a product markets itself or is perceived as something that is useful for weight loss, and it doesn't have any fewer calories than the food it's meant to replace, from a weight-loss perspective there is no difference," say Linder. "And from a nutrition perspective a low-carb beer is not more nutritious or more healthful for you than a regular beer."

What Does "Low Carb" Mean?

Even though many products tout themselves as "low carb" or are marketed to "carb counters," the FDA has not legally defined what "low carb" means, as it has for low fat, low sodium, and low cholesterol.

Experts say that until the FDA decides to weigh in on the carbohydrate issue, it's up to consumers to educate themselves on how to interpret low-carb claims on product labels.

By law, food manufacturers are required to list the number of total carbohydrates in a product on the nutrition facts label. But makers of low-carb products often include another box next to the nutrition label that has information on the "net carb" content of the food.

The net carbohydrate content is designed to reflect the amount of carbohydrates the product contains that will cause blood sugar levels to rise, a key factor in low-carbohydrate diets such as Atkins and the South Beach Diet.

"There is no legal definition of net carbs. That's their math," says Lindner. "They have a formula about how the number of grams of carbs don't count the way you think they would count."

Registered dietitian Samantha Heller says that in calculating the net carbohydrate content, many food companies subtract the number of grams of dietary fiber as well as other carbohydrates such as glycerin and sugar alcohols from the number of total carbohydrates listed in the nutrition facts label.

"Their rationale is that the glycerin and the sugar alcohols do not raise blood sugar as quickly or as high as the regular carbohydrates," says Heller, who is a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center. "Though this is true, they're choosing to ignore the fact that they still have calories."

Rather than relying on the manufacturer's math, Heller recommends that carb-conscious consumers look at the total number of carbohydrates in the nutrition facts label and then subtract only the dietary fiber in order to get an idea of how many net carbohydrates are in the product.

Unlike sugar alcohols, Heller says dietary fiber does not make a significant contribution to the calorie content of foods because it's not readily digested by the body.

When the sugars and starches that cause blood sugar levels to rise are taken out of foods that rely on these elements for flavor and texture, something has to take their place.

In the case of low-carb candy, ice creams, and other sweets, that often means sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol, maltitol, and lactitol.

"They have a very similar chemical structure as sugar, but they have alcohol attached to it, which regular sugar doesn't," says Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine and a product development expert with the Institute of Food Technologists.


"It's the same thing with the low-carb products. They essentially have as many calories as the things they are meant to replace."

"The drawback is that because they have alcohol, they're really good at attracting water," says Camire. "If you eat too much, those alcohols pull water into your gut because they're not digested and then you end up with diarrhea."

Camire also warns that you may get the same effect from eating low-carb breads or pastas. In order to lower the carbohydrate content of these traditionally carbohydrate-rich foods, manufacturers often add extra protein or a type of highly processed starch that is hard to digest in order to add texture and bulk.

"What happens is that you can process starch so that very little of it is digestible, and we call that 'resistant starch,'" explains Camire. "It ends up being analyzed for the food label as dietary fiber."

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"You don't want to get far from the restroom, but that's a good thing," says Camire. "The body recognizes it as fiber, and most Americans aren't getting enough fiber anyway. So it's a win-win situation, you get lower carbohydrates and more fiber."

But by taking whole grains out and replacing them with other fillers, Heller and Camire say that low-carb dieters may also be missing out on nutritional benefits, such as the natural antioxidants and phytochemicals found in whole grains.

It's the Calories That Matter

Nutritionists say that America's obesity epidemic shows no signs of waning, and the low-carb craze may go the same way as the low-fat frenzy a decade ago.

"During the low-fat craze, people ran out and bought low-fat Snackwell cookies," says Lindner. "Well, guess what? They have the same number of calories as Oreos and Chips Ahoy, and you're not going to lose weight if you keep eating those. It's the same thing with the low-carb products. They essentially have as many calories as the things they are meant to replace, and you're not going to lose weight if you don't eat fewer calories."

Heller agrees and says winning the battle against the bulge isn't about replacing one source of empty calories, such as beer, with another lower carbohydrate version. Instead, it's about making healthy lifestyle changes.

"You can lose weight by eating healthy food or unhealthy food," Heller tells WebMD. "We would prefer, and your body would be happier, if you were trying to reach and maintain a healthy weight by eating healthy food."

"A low-carb approach is not the answer to a healthy diet," says Heller.

SOURCES: FDA. Larry Lindner, executive editor, Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter; instructor, School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, New Orleans. Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist, New York University Medical Center. Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, professor, food science and human nutrition, University of Maine; product development expert, Institute of Food Technologists. Anheuser-Busch, Inc. Miller Brewing Co.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005