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“Net Carbs” == Junk Food : Don’t be Fooled

Wayne Blackshear

8 min read

Feb 19

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“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” — Mark Twain


 

Ask my friends and they will tell you that my list of top 10 things that I can’t stand includes buzz words. They are a catchy way for the less-informed to be impressed by those that are trying to be impressive.


You see, I am like everyone else. I ate fast food, I drank soda, I ate chips, I ate cookies. About 10 years ago one of my best friends introduced me to keto. I had never heard of keto; I had never really heard of any “type” of diet. There was just food, and I ate it, move along.


I wasn’t looking for any health improvements and didn’t realize that I was a bit overweight at the time. I thought I was relatively healthy as compared to most people around me.


I did some of my own research, and loved the idea of all the bacon I could eat. I could give up bread for that. And so I did. I dove in, with my normal headfirst, all or nothing, jump first, then ask questions. I got a food scale, I checked food labels, I made sure that no matter what, my total carb intake was 20 grams or lower per day.


I never deviated, never cheated, never went over by even 1 gram. I ended up getting off fast food, and other junk food and started eating a whole food diet. Mostly meat, and broccoli smothered in butter and olive oil. It was addicting and became my new normal.

I used the ketone urine strips twice a day and kept a log of my levels. I was hooked on the mental clarity, and discipline over my food that it brought.


After about 2 years of this, “Keto” food products started being advertised heavily on the shelves in my area. I had never heard of a “Net Carb” before and didn’t know the difference. I thought it was just a way that Keto food did things.


I started straying from my strict regimen. I started having other things than my meal prepped, measured to the gram containers of meat, and broccoli with butter and oil.

I remember the first time I tried a food that was labeled as net carbs. It was a cookie bar. I remember it. The package was blue and white with brown and darker brown specks all over it. It was soft and cold. It had 3 grams of net carbs on it. I bought it and ate it on the way home.


It tasted amazing. I couldn’t remember the last time I had something sweet, and wow did it light up my brain. I stopped the next day and bought a whole box. Then I ate 3 of them in one day.


I don’t know what happened to my body, but I thought I had eaten concrete and there was pain. A lot of pain. I had only ever been constipated once before that I could remember, and that was when I ate an entire can of cashews in one sitting.

This was worse. My gut was in pain, my stomach hurt, I was in pain and was walking funny. This lasted about 3 full days. It slowly went away, and I recovered.


Did that experience stop me? Nope. I bought some more, and the same thing happened about two weeks later. I didn’t understand it, but I knew that I just had to eat less of that stuff. Not cut it out, just eat less. My brain had been changed.


I had become addicted to sweet foods again in those short 4 weeks or so. I limited myself to one of those bars a day and was ok digestion wise for the most part. Or so I thought.


I started shopping around for other types of low net carb foods. I got into several types of snack bars, protein bars, and ice cream. Yes, they make low net carb ice cream. I also found low net carb yogurt about the same time.


I started eating more of this low net carb food and started feeling worse and worse by the day. Over time it kept building up. I still ate meat, and my broccoli, but started eating less of that stuff and more of the keto snacks.


This led to me stopping my meticulous food tracking, and ketone level logging. I didn’t pay attention to it anymore, and instead told myself that I had figured out the Keto diet using these products. I could have all of it that I wanted if my “Net Carbs” was below 20, then 30, then eventually 50 grams.


By the time I consider myself having fallen off the wagon, I somehow had convinced myself I could eat as much as 100 net carbs a day and still call myself “Keto”. I was lying to myself and felt miserable.


I was starting to eat regular junk food too. A bite of my kids’ cereal here, or a handful of chips there. Then more, and then the whole bag. Let’s just hit the drive-thru on our way type stuff.


This made me angry. I had done good for so long, and now, how did I get here? Well, it is fixable.


I started to cut out the snacks and treats, started meal prepping again, and dabbled in Carnivore on and off.


I had cravings. All the time, day, night, morning, it didn’t matter. I always had this pain in my gut that I needed that stuff. My microbiota was screaming at me 24/7 to eat more “net carbs”.


I cut off the junk food and started to track my food again. This I went back to tracking carbs (not net carbs) and started paying attention to my ingredient’s quality. I specifically knew that tracking net carbs was a failure waiting to happen again.

I am doing great now and feel that I am on a good track. The point of this story is not to explore what I am doing now and have found great success in, but rather to illustrate a snowball effect of food products labeled as “net carbs”.


If you have good self-control, they may be fine in small quantities, but in my opinion they really are just junk food marketed as health food. Lots of them have the same addictive properties of regular junk food. They are highly palatable. The only difference is low net carb “Keto” foods are often overpriced and have even unnatural combinations of substances.


Those cookie bars I was going down memory lane with were about $3 each at the time. Back then I could get a full pound of ground beef for around $4. The cookie bars were 2 ounces. THAT IS $22.50 PER POUND! Even today in 2024, Ribeye steak is between 10 and 18 per pound.



 

“Net Carbs” started being used in marketing foods around the early 2000s when low-carb diets, such as the Atkins diet, began gaining popularity.


You know what protein is; you know what fat is, you know what a carb is. So, what is a “Net Carb”? Well, let me tell you. Technically, it is a measurement of carbohydrates in packaged food items. To calculate it, simply take the total amount of total carbohydrate and subtract the fiber and sugar alcohols.


Have you ever heard of a apple, orange, or banana marketed as having “net carbs”? No, you haven’t. It is just a food. It has carbs, but there is no shady business around it.

“Net Carbs” is not a phrase or word regulated by the FDA. Instead, food companies leverage advertising and net carbs to bring the total carbs down lower, so a product is appealing to individuals that follow a low-carb diet.


There are many different ingredients that are added to low net carb foods. Some of these include inulin, tapioca Fiber, acacia gum, erythritol, resistant dextrin.

These ingredients are often used in combination to:


  1. Lower the net carb number by introducing fiber that humans do not digest. Advertising takes advantage. Who doesn’t want a lower carb number on a package if one is trying to stay “Keto”? “Only 10 Net Carbs” sounds a lot better than “44g carbohydrate, 12g added sugar”.

  2. Make a food bulkier, or thick. This is commonly done in snacks or treats such as cookie bars, and yogurt. A lot of store-bought yogurts is not fermented long enough to get natural thickening, so fiber (or other thickening agent) is added to speed up production.

  3. Sweeten a product using sweeteners (natural or artificial) that don’t impact blood sugar. This is common in snacks and treats marketed as low carb alternatives.


Low Net Carb foods often are labeled on the front or in the eye-catching section as having “Only X Net Carbs!” That sounds great on the surface, but it doesn’t really give the full picture. Don’t get me wrong, if this is where you are at in your health journey, then by all means, have that keto treat instead of a regular bag of chips or cookie. I just want to make you aware that these foods are, for the most part, designed to maximize profit, not get you healthy. They are a good, on the good, better, best scale when compared to real whole foods and regular junk food.


Take the label below, it looks like a pretty typical food label. All food labels look something very similar. They are regulated in how the information is displayed. The tricky thing about this food is that under the Total Carbohydrate line item, it lists 9 grams of fiber and 1 gram of total sugar.



Nothing devious at this point… But, when that 9 grams of fiber will be subtracted from the 12 grams of total carbohydrates and then have “3 Grams Net Carbs” slapped on the side and front of the package I think it becomes a problem.


This product would literally fall apart and not stick together without the fiber. I have specifically not mentioned the ingredients list in this post as to not trigger anyone’s cravings. That is not my goal, I only want to bring attention to this matter as I have had personal experience of falling for this trick and becoming ill as a result.


The biggest issue with foods like this is that they are ultra-processed junk food. No food exists like this naturally in nature. You won’t find any whole food that has extra sweeteners added to make it sweet, then have extra fiber from a completely different plant that you would never eat to begin with added to it to bring down the carb amounts. These foods just do not exist in nature.


For comparison here are 5 whole foods and the equivalent amounts you would need to eat to get 9 grams of fiber:


  1. Apples contain about 4.5 grams of fiber per medium-sized apple. You would need to eat about two of them to get this much fiber.

  2. Raspberries contain about 8 grams per cup. You would need to eat just over 1 cup of them.

  3. Avocados contain about 10 grams of fiber for a whole avocado depending on its size and the size of its pit.

  4. Broccoli contains about 5 grams of fiber per cup. You would need to eat almost 2 cups of broccoli.

  5. Carrots have about 3.5 grams per cup (packed cup) of fiber. You would need to eat about 2.5 cups of carrots to get the same amount.


The point of this isn’t to recommend eating lots of fiber containing fruits and vegetables. I show it to illustrate the difference from a whole food and an ultra-processed food that is marketed towards people trying to follow a ketogenic diet. I feel bad for those people who fell victim to this ruse just as I did.


I hope if you are reading this and are eating these net carb products, you are being intentional, or become enlightened after reading this and cut them out and return to whole foods in your journey.


My point is, that while these low net carb foods are convenient and sweet and tasty, they can be a disaster health wise just as regular junk food. While technically they do have less of an impact on blood sugar, that isn’t the whole story, and is not the only health goal for lots of people.


This article is from my biased opinion about nutrition. For people with different nutritional and health goals than me, these products may be a good bridge or fallback as they transition into more whole and lower glycemic index foods.


In conclusion, don’t be fooled by the “net carbs” marketing gimmick. Instead, focus on eating a diet filled with whole foods and minimizes packaged foods and premade foods. It might not be as convenient or trendy, but your health (and your wallet) will thank you.


Take Care


Wayne Blackshear

8 min read

Feb 19

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0

0

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