Labels for Low-carb Dieters
What special problems do lowcarbers have?
The law and regulations requiring nutrition panels on food labels were originally implemented as part of a campaign to get people to eat less fat. As a result, certain aspects of the law are less helpful and/or accurate for diets with a different focus. Despite years of requests, the FDA still has not come up with a legal definition of what is lowcarb. Originally, the FDA used this lack of a definition to threaten to prosecute anyone who advertised or labelled a product lowcarb or anything that implied it was lowcarb, no matter how low in carbs the product may have been. More recently, they have indicated that they will no longer prosecute, which means that now anyone can call products as lowcarb, no matter how many they actually contain. Furthermore, they now allow, but do not regulate, claims of net carbs as long as the reasoning is explained. There is no requirement that the basis for the claim be validated in any way.
How do lowfat-oriented regulations cause a problem for lowcarbers?
The biggest problem is that they lead us to expect greater overall accuracy than we get. This impression of accuracy can be dangerous for anyone trying to control nutrients other than fats or salt.
The idea behind the regulations is that by standardizing formats and serving sizes, people could compare products and buy the most-healthful choices. By selecting fat and salt as dangerous, the other nutrients got much shorter shrift. Fat content is reported more accurately, carbohydrate content less accurately than other nutrients (as explained in the main FAQ). Serving sizes are often not useful to us.
How do serving sizes affect lowcarbers?
Most lowcarbers’ eating patterns are concerned with reducing carbs and not fat, so we are likely to use different serving sizes. When the serving size reported on the label is significantly larger than what we eat, we are required to do arithmetic, not something most Americans enjoy. But, even worse, when it is too small, we lose a lot of information because of rounding.
Heavy (or whipping) cream is a perfect example. For some reason, it is required to be reported in one tablespoon servings. (Is anyone able to whip only one tablespoon at a time?) Looking at the nutrition label for 36% butterfat cream, it correctly reports carbohydrates as “0g” even though one cup cream (8 fluid ounces) of 36% butterfat cream contains 6.6g carbohydrate. There are 16 tablespoons in a cup so when you divided 6.6 by 16, you get 0.4g carb per tablepoon which rounds to zero. So, when lowcarbers use the package label for information, while using cream in larger amounts, their carbohydrate calculations are wrong. The problem is not dishonesty but the way the regulations were written.
My cream lists 1g carb. Does this mean the manufacturer was more honest?
Probably not — it is not dishonest or less-honest to follow the rules. Cream is an agricultural commodity that has to meet a number of standards, so one brand is unlikely to differ from another unless the producer explains otherwise, for example cream that comes from only one type of cow. More likely, your cream may have less than 36% butterfat and contain other additives to help it whip. That combination may increase the carb count enough to require rounding up to 1g. However, unless it is sweetened, it is unlikely to differ significantly — but read your label carefully.
Are there other problems?
The main FAQ notes that foods that contain only insignificant amounts of nutrients considered important under the law need not have labels. Sadly for us, those “insignificant amounts” tend to be carbs which are insignificant only in the context of a high-carbohydrate diet. The fact that a cup of coffee or tea contains a mere gram of carbohydrate is insignificant to people who routinely consume more than 300g per day — but a few cups of these supposedly no-calorie, presumably no-carb, beverages can represent a big chunk of most carb allowances. Spices, herbs, extracts, etc. are not required to have nutrition labels but can also add up for us.
What about enforcement?
Under-reporting carbs is not explicitly against the regulations (as explained in the main FAQ). Carbs are officially a “good” nutrient, so while regulations require that the contents of the package contain at least 80% of what is reported on the nutrition label, they are silent about what happens when the manufacturer is overly-generous. This loophole was exploited by a number of early lowcarb manufacturers, who misreported or failed to report sugar alcohols, fiber and the like in the Total Carbohydrates on the Nutrition Facts label. This issue became so serious that a group of early lowcarbers paid for independent lab tests which, sadly, confirmed that none of the products tested were as low in carbs as reported on their labels. It was years before the FDA took action and warned some of the manufacturers against misreporting Nutrition Facts.
Is this still a problem?
As long as enforcement depends on the FDA first issuing a warning letter, it is still possible for a manufacturer to make inaccurate claims, and then change them only after getting caught. However, by and large the Nutrition Facts labels are more accurate now that recent advertising focuses more on net carb claims, which are not subject to regulation or enforcement as long as their basis is explained. Furthermore, as noted above, they can now call anything they want lowcarb with impunity.
Are there any other new problems?
As the net carb claims began to proliferate, a number of ingredients manufacturers have begun offering products that they claim are high in fiber and therefore low in net carbs but which, in fact, are not legally fiber, such as inulin and polydextrose. While there is scientific evidence that these materials are not digested in the body, so far the FDA has not approved their designation as fiber because of concern about analytical methods. Until the regulations are changed, it is still against U.S. law to report them as fiber. While this may not sound like a problem for lowcarbers, once any part of the regulations is flouted for commercial gain, there’s no way to be sure that the other rules are being followed. Other ingredients manufacturers offer products that analyze as high-fiber when unprocessed but which are not stable and often have considerably less fiber after processing into food. Conscientious manufacturers who do not have sufficient expertise to evaluate these claims have been taken in, and have inadvertantly manufactured products that are higher in carbs than they claim on their labels.
The bottom line is that we are still pretty much on our own.