What exactly are NET Carbohydrates and how are they different from a traditional carbohydrate? If you ask that question to 10 people, you are bound to get 10 totally different answers. While managing my coaching clients who are prepping for the stage or getting ready for IronMan, every calorie counts, and the non-adherence to strategic nutritional programming can be the determining factor in overall performance.
The term Net Carbohydrates has been a dirty little marketing secret in the food industry for too long, with mega-corporations using these misleading terms to sell products and swindle customers. I teamed up with registered dietitian Mike Gorski this week to bring you the truth behind Net Carbs, to finally set the record straight.
Here’s What You Need To Know…
1. What if I told you that your food labels were not exactly accurate, and if you are passionately tracking macronutrients and calories your counts may be skewed?
2. The confusing and downright misleading marketing strategies centered around carbohydrates, and more specifically NET Carbohydrates has many consumers baffled on what actually constitutes a carb.
3. Unfortunately, there is no FDA regulation of the term NET Carbohydrates and thus no legal definition, but it can be roughly defined as the difference between total carbohydrate composition of a food minus the dietary fiber.
4. While adding fiber to the diet is advantageous for general GI function, one of the most popular fiber products used in protein bars and snacks is isomalto-oligosaccharides (IMO), a highly processed and insoluble form of fiber – some would hardly even call it fiber.
5. While inaccurately tracking those net carb calorie numbers aren’t likely to completely derail your diet efforts, the fact is these foods still contains more calories than you may think, and when muscle gain or fat loss is the goal, calories are still king.
6. Be educated about what you are consuming, especially if your physique pays the bills or your general health is at risk. Knowledge is power, but sometimes you have to cut through the crap to use it!
Your Nutrition Is Spot On … Right?
You meticulously track your macros, count everything out to the nearest gram, and scour labels like the 500 page textbooks you should have been studying in college instead of calculating the carbs in 23 Keystone Lights. Lets face it, you are now that guy and are damn proud of it!
You tirelessly count out carbs for your workout days and non-workout days based off of your aesthetics goals. You stock up on low-carb bars, labeled with only three grams of net carbs, or paleo bread, because I know the cavemen made some pretty tasty loafs from twigs and berries.
You are the new age fitness phenom when it comes to what you smash to your face on a daily basis, congratulations. But before you celebrate your awesomeness, what if I told you that your labels were not exactly accurate, your numbers may be skewed, and everything you thought you mastered about your diet approach may be downright bullshit? Brace yourself, this may be a gut shot to…well, your gut most likely if you have been swindled by this nutritional scam.
What Exactly Are NET Carbohydrates ?
It’s no surprise that the food industry is quite talented at fabricating foodie loving terms in order to sell more products, make more money and ride out every new diet trend like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. As soon as low-carb diets started to consume the minds of chronic dieters and CrossFit fanatics alike, terms such as “net carbs”, “active carbs” and “impact carbs” all of a sudden started being showcased on the fronts of food labels as the next All-American health food innovation.
All these misleading terms refer to the total carbohydrate content minus the fiber/sugar-alcohols or “non-impact carbs” associated in a food’s composition. For example, if a product contains 20 grams of carbohydrates, but 17 of them are from a form of fiber, companies will market this as “only 3 net carbs”! Instantly, people are absolutely thrilled to be consuming a protein bar that more closely resembles a Snickers than the healthy form of nutrition you have been swindled into consuming.
Unfortunately, there is no FDA regulation of the term “net carbs” and thus no legal definition. This is what leads savvy marketers in the health food industry to plaster this attention grabbing infographic on the front of any product they want, just as long as it’s semi-justifiable.
While it’s important to increase fiber intake for many reasons including regular gastrointestinal function and gut health, fibrous carbohydrates don’t just magically vanish after chomping them down and should certainly not be discounted towards anything metabolically related, especially when it comes to accurate macronutrient tracking.
Along the same lines, sugar alcohols are lower in calories than sugar itself, but may also cause some unpleasant side effects such as bloating, and diarrhea. It should be noted that sugar alcohols are derived from a the processing of actual sugar, so that extra processing step alone should raise some red flags.
Sugar alcohols are very tough to literally swallow alone, and many times are combined with everyone’s favorite carcinogen the artificial sweetener just to make it semi-palatable. And while we are at it, it’s important to understand that sugar alcohols do indeed increase blood sugar levels when consumed. So if you’re still justifying these tasty snacks to control insulin release and uptake, think again.
Maybe the most pivotal point for eating food for the average person is taste. If taste didn’t matter, we could all get away with eating dog food a few times a day and be totally fine, really. Back to sugar alcohols, if you’re wondering what that aftertaste is in your mouth after eating a “Healthy Protein Bar”, it’s the sugar alcohols mixed with a little sucrose. Mmm, making me hungry just talking about it!
If your main goal is just getting more fiber in your diet, don’t turn to supplements and protein bars, but rather whole vegetables, beans, and some high fiber grains – all of which are loaded with other beneficial phytonutrients to benefit your body. Fact; daily fiber intake can be increased by consuming a brand new food source called green leafy vegetables that we’ve heard can be pretty good for your general internal health, along with improving body composition. See how sexy marketing can make anything sound good, even vegetables?!
NET Carbohydrates Usage
Many protein bars, diabetic targeted foods, and weight loss focused foods use the term net carbs to stand out to these populations. However, some companies have recently come under legal attacks for misleading labeling and manufacturing. Also, the flashy labels on the front of the package don’t tell the whole story of the food, and sometimes the legal ingredient label on the back is just as confusing and misleading as that star with the net carb count on the front.
Beware of the products that are specifically marketed as “paleo” or “carb-free”. Be sure you are looking at the back of the product, and checking how many carbohydrates are in the product – it may be extremely different from what is on the front of the package. This day and age, it sometimes takes nothing short of a nutritional degree to dispel these hard sell marketing myths, but that’s why we are here writing about these things so we can simplify the process for you.
When someone says the term “net carbs” the first nutritional product that comes to mind are the magic protein bars that are just too good to be true. One of the most popular fiber products used in protein bars is isomalto-oligosaccharides (IMO), a highly processed form of fiber – some would hardly call it fiber. This is a form of insoluble fiber and a prebiotic in the diet. The claims behind IMO include, it is a low-glycemic carb, it doesn’t get digested, and doesn’t count toward your carb intake.
This is why you are left utterly confused after smashing one of these bad boys to your face and wondering how they amazingly produce flavor after flavor of protein bars with over 20 grams of protein and less than 200 total calories. We’ve all “cheated clean” and yeah these bars are probably the better alternative than the average shitty American fast-food meal. But for individuals who depend on their physique for a living, or who are battling health issues and need a strategically based nutritional plan, the overconsumption of these products can really derail even the most noble goal-oriented person.
The Cold Hard Truth About Net Carbohydrates
Sounds like a pretty compelling argument, doesn’t it? With further review, all of these claims can be easily disputed by professional marketers. First, while IMO is technically a low glycemic carbohydrate, it’s hardly considered the lowest of the low. The glycemic index ranks foods based off of their affect on blood glucose levels. Studies have shown that IMO is a 34.66+/-7.65 on the glycemic index (1). This would be equivalent to barley or grapefruit (26 GI) or apple juice (41 GI). These are hardly foods that are thought of as having an uber low glycemic index.
On a side note, if your goal is to be on an ultra low carb, or ketogenic diet, IMO and other “non-impact” carbs will derail your ketosis goals, so be aware of that as well. Sneaky, sneaky!
Also, studies have shown that IMO does not cause a reduction in post-prandial (post-meal) glycemic response in humans, a very important part of making nutritional claims for products (2).
As far as sugar alcohols go, most of them are very low GI (ranging between 1-12), aside from maltitol at 35 GI. They still elicit a blood glucose response – but are not counted as a carbohydrate source on many labels. As stated earlier, there may be some gastrointestinal issues associated with increased sugar alcohol intakes. And if you are thinking all that “fiber” you are consuming with the sugar alcohols are going to clear you out just fine, think again. Don’t be surprised when everything slows down; you’ve been warned.
The idea that non-impact carbs are negligible is a ridiculous idea as well. If a food has 20 grams of carbs, it has 20 grams of carbs, even if 17 “don’t count” according to the manufacturer. IMO’s contain roughly two calories per gram – thus meaning – they count for something (3)!
While those calorie numbers likely won’t completely derail your diet efforts, the fact is, the bar still contains more calories than you may think, and when muscle gain or fat loss is the goal, calories are still king. As most people choose to eat low carb for weight loss purposes, by only paying attention to the front label that has the flashy graphics on it that says “ONLY 3 GRAMS of SUGAR!” , you may be completely ignoring the caloric value of the entire bar, and just basing your consumption off of the “3g Net Carb” claim. This is a common trap that many dieters fall into. Be better than the average dieter, be informed about what’s going into your body.
Protect Yourself Against The Food Marketing Machine
Here’s the bottom line, don’t get fooled by the net carb marketing ploy. You can still consume products that contain them. However, if you are serious about your health and nutrition, as I’m positive you are from your interest in this article, you need to track these carbs and calories diligently. If you only track “net carbs” you could easily be consuming hundreds of grams of carbohydrates more than you think, and thus blunting your composition goals from becoming a reality.
Put action to what you know. You need to stop reading the front labels with the flashy designs, and read the back to figure this stuff out for yourself. If the bar says it has 20 grams of carbs, it has 20 grams of carbs – count it as that. Don’t overthink it, move on, and as always, lift some heavy weight and drink some damn water!
About The Authors
Mike Gorski is a Registered Dietitian and personal trainer located just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. Mike works with clients on a wide variety of goals including sports performance, post-rehab training, weight loss, and overall healthy behavior change. His ideas and methods have been featured on some of the top publications in the fitness industry including the Personal Trainer Development Center. Mike’s mission is to create positive behavior change with all his clients that will not only get them to their personal goal, but last them a lifetime. Learn more about Mike on his Website: www.mgfitlife.com.
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and writer, whose published over 100 articles in some of the most widely regarded media outlets in the industry like Testosterone Nation, Mountain Dog Diet, Breaking Muscle, and Muscle and Strength, to name a few.
Along with an impressive laundry list of publications, Dr. John works with some of the world’s most elite athletes, including Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pro Quarterbacks, MLB All-Star Pitchers, Professional Bodybuilders and World Class IronMan Triathletes. He takes pride in offering uniquely customized programming to clients of all walks of life in the exact same detail and passion as the Pros! Check out Dr. John’s Latest 12-Week Functional Hypertrophy Training Program.
Follow Dr. John Rusin on his Facebook: John Rusin Fitness Systems
1. Sheng G.E., et al., (2006) Determination of Glycemic Index of Xylitol and Isooligosaccharide. Clin. J. Clin. Nutr., 14 (4); 235-237. Net Carbohydrates
2. EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA); Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of a health claim related to isomalto-oligosaccharides and reduction of post-prandial glycemic responses (ID 798), and increase in the frequency of daily bowel movements (ID 800) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. EFSA Journal 2010;8(10):1801.