What are Net Carbs and How to Calculate them?

by Christine Hronec

As a way of bolstering the low carb craze of the past decade, food manufacturers have single handedly coined the food term “net carbs,” which practically guarantees dieters can eat the sweet and salty foods of their dreams without counting their true carbohydrate load.

Food manufacturers coined the term “net carbs” to market the low carb craze in the early 2000’s. There is no legal definition for net carbs; therefore the FDA does not require this information on a nutrition facts label and calculations may vary by manufacturer. The only carb information regulated by the FDA is provided on the nutrition facts label of foods, which lists total carbohydrates and breaks them down into soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, and sugars.

People often go on low-carb diets to lose body fat or to “shred” before physique competitions. The problem is that going on a low-carb diet typically includes cutting out food groups like grains, fruit and some vegetables, so important nutrients can be overlooked. Calculating a food’s net carbs allows you to potentially include more foods in your diet, since the lower the carbs, the better the chance it won’t put you over your carb count for the day. The thought process being that carbs that are classified as insoluble fiber will not count against the total carbohydrate count for the day since they will pass through the digestive system.

Net carbs is a calculation representing just the starches and sugars in a food after some fiber and sugar alcohol contents have been subtracted. Some types of carbohydrates do not affect blood sugar in the body as much as others, so the thought is that net carbs only account for carbs that impact blood sugar. This is why food manufacturers include the term “net carbs” on packaged foods marketed as low carb or low sugar — because it’s designed to appeal to people on low-carb diets.

To calculate net carbs, first subtract all of the insoluble fiber (if listed) from the total carbs and total fiber. If more than 5 grams of total fiber remain, you can also subtract half of the remaining fiber from total carbs. Then look at the sugar alcohols. If there are more than 5 grams of sugar alcohols, subtract half that amount from the total carbohydrates. If erythritol is the only sugar alcohol listed, you may not subtract any sugar alcohols.

Most manufacturers subtract all of the fiber and sugar alcohols to arrive at net carbs, which isn’t completely accurate. Back when the Atkins diet was really popular; it was all about net carbs. Net carbs were originally used for diabetics. For example, when they’re taught carbohydrate counting, dietitians typically teach that if the fiber is 5 grams or greater, subtract that amount from total carbohydrates to get a net carb amount. This is mostly useful for Type 1 diabetics, as a higher fiber amount would mean a slower release in carbohydrates.

The formula:
Total carbohydrates per serving
minus number of grams of fiber (soluble and insoluble) per serving
minus 1/2 the number of grams of sugar alcohols if 5 or more from total carbohydrates
equals net carbs

The value in counting net carbs

Increasing fiber intake is important for all of us but there is little use in calculating net carbs unless it is for a Type 1 diabetic to plan for insulin release. People do not need to calculate net carbs. Someone that is following a low-carb diet may want to calculate net carbs since it will allow them to include more carb-containing foods in their diet that they ordinarily wouldn’t be able to.

However, the American Diabetes Association does not recommend using net carbs for meal planning purposes. Instead consumers should use the Nutrition Facts label (which is somewhat regulated by the FDA) and look at the total carbohydrates. If someone is on intensive insulin management therapy and has an advanced knowledge of carb counting, ADA says it is OK to use the calculation above.

For the average person just trying to shed pounds, a much better and more easily tracked approach is to eat mostly fruits and vegetables, a moderate amount of whole grains (cut out refined junk food), a serving of nuts or seeds, and a moderate amount of protein foods. The overall shift from net carbs to the glycemic index has been amore valuable tool for consumers concerned with sugar intake.

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