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Carbs Vs Net Carbs

What should you be counting?

If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you’d know that we’ve been speaking a lot about ‘healthy’ snacks. And the new, innovative ways in which they try and deceive you into believing they’re healthy.

We started with a review of protein bars, then spoke of sugar alcohols, and last week we discussed FOS or Dietary Fibre.

All that discussion culminates today in the one debate that’s been eating the low-carb-dieting world.

Carbs or Net-Carbs. What should you be counting?

So here’s FITSHIT, your very own weekend truth-teller, jumping right into this muddle. And like we always do, let’s start with the basics.

What are Net Carbs?

Net carbs are carbs that your body can fully absorb and hence derive calories from.

Net Carbs = Total Carbs minus Fibre minus Sugar Alcohols

If you remember from last week’s article, Fibres are carbs that enzymes in your small intestine can’t process. They pass through directly to your colon.

Similarly, from the protein bar article, you might recall that sugar-alcohols like Maltitol, Erythritol etc, are only partially absorbed by the body. They do not enter the blood stream in full.

Taking off from these facts, low-carb food-peddlers came up with a new term: Net carbs. Which, as per them, are the exact amount of carbs in a food that your body can actually absorb.

Their logic: Stuff that your body can’t absorb, carbs that never enter your blood stream and hence do not lead to an insulin spike, shouldn’t be counted by dieters looking to restrict total carbs under a certain number.

So let’s say you’re trying Keto and need to keep your carb count under 20gm per day. That’s a tough task. Especially once you realise that 1 onion has ~7gm carbs!

But just as you’re about to give up and walk over to the ice-cream tub in despair, a low-carb messiah pops-up and gives you hope. He argues that you must not look at the 7gm total carbs in the onion. 5 of those 7 are fibre that your body can’t process.

So, in effect, have that onion and all you’ll eat are ~2gm carbs. Problem solved!

I assume, that by now you’ve assumed, that it can’t be that simple.

Enter Sugar Alcohols

Now let’s take a processed food example. Consider the picture below.

This is one of the many, shitty protein bars available in India. The pack front proudly claims 5gm fibre. And the back clearly states it has that, plus 10.5gm ‘Polyols’. And from the ingredient list we know that the Polyol is Maltitol.

So what’s the Net Carb status of this bar?

If we go by the formula:

Net Carbs = Total Carbs (20.4gm) — Fibre (5gm) — Polyol(10.5gm) = ~5gm

Wow. This must be a great bar. NOT.

There are 2 problems here.

One, that Sugar Alcohols aren’t entirely non-absorbable by the body.

Maltitol, the Polyol in question here, for example, is partially absorbed by the body. About 40–50% of Maltitol gets processed and enters the blood stream. That’s why it delivers about 2kcal/ gm. Unlike the usual 4kcal that a normal carb would.

So, to accurately calculate Net Carbs here, you’d have to add back half of the Maltitol. And hence the right answer is 5gm + 5gm = 10gm Net Carbs.

Not so good now, is it? Wait, it get’s worse.

The Real Problem with Net Carbs

These are just some of the products marketing themselves as ‘Low Net Carbs’ or even as ‘Zero Carb’.

Obviously, when you turn the pack, you realise that it’s not actually zero carb. Rather, all the carb is either from fibre or sugar alcohols and these cunning marketeers have twisted that fact to claim ‘ZERO’ carbs.

The problem is that there isn’t significant enough research done on the side effects of stuffing ourselves with these chemically derived dietary fibres and alcohols.

The idea of them sounds great. Eat stuff that gives you the taste but doesn’t get processed by the body. But we’ve never consumed them in such copious amounts. The effects of this unprecedented level of sugar alcohol on our gut bacteria is far from established.

But sufficient scientific research apart, the real trouble with these claims is their psychological effect.

I assume that most people who opt for foods with such low-carb claims, are trying to lose weight. Also remember that the most basic, inviolable equation for weight-loss is that Calories In must be lesser than Calories Out.

Eat more calories than you can burn, and it doesn’t matter which source they come from. Whether that source is low-fat or no-carb or high-protein. You will NOT lose weight.

And that’s where the Net-Carb fraud really hurts dieters.

It’s easy to pick up that Zero-Carb bread and feel that you haven’t eaten much of anything at all. Same for that ‘1gm net carb’ protein bar.

But remember, that net carb, even if we believe that definition for a second, comes wrapped in fats and proteins and hence calories.

Since these foods taste great, and seem like they don’t cause much harm, most people end up consuming a lot of them. Many a times enough to replace whole meals. Which is a really, really bad idea.

Fibre was a good thing when it came in the form of fruits and vegetable, covered with vitamins and minerals. Sugar too was good, when it came wrapped in fibre.

But with stuff like Maltitol and FOS, we’re doing another Refined Sugar. Trying to kill a golden-egg laying goose, hoping to extract all that dough in one go.

But we know how that story ends.

NoteNet Carbs isn’t a real ‘thing’. It’s not a term acknowledged by either US or India FDA. It’s a just a term that food-marketeers thought up. It isn’t checked or regulated in any way.


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