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January 23, 2016

Important Information for Carb-Conscious Dieters

Fitness First USA

Protein supplements are simple, economical tools that help people increase their protein intake while controlling how many carbohydrates they consume. Many people on low carb diets find that powders and bars are also especially helpful as quick, on the go, meals. However, the next time you look for low carb foods and supplements, things will look a little different.

It's going to be a little more difficult to find "Low Carbohydrate" products listed as "Low Carbohydrate."

If you're already an avid low carb supplement user, you will notice it is becoming more difficult to find low carbohydrate foods and supplements. The products aren't changing, but the packaging is. This is because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has asked all food and supplement makers not to use the term "low carb" or "low carbohydrate" on any packaging until the Federal Government issues official guidelines on the topic.


You may not be aware of it, but regulations do currently exist about what can be called "low fat," "low cholesterol," and "low sodium." However, guidelines have not been established for carbohydrates. This is because carbohydrate content generally was not a concern for people until a variety of weight loss plans that restricted this nutrient became popular. So, now we must wait for the FDA to establish guidelines before you will see "low carbohydrate" (or "low carb") on packaging. In the meantime, you'll have to check the nutrition facts panel for carbohydrate content and decide what fits your program. (Don't forget to be realistic - an 8oz glass of skim milk contains more that 10 grams of carbs and 20 grams of carbohydrates is less than you'll find in an 8oz serving of yogurt!)

It is also important to remember that not all carbohydrates act the same in the body. For example, many dietary fibers are non-digestible, so they do not add to the calorie content or raise blood sugar levels.

What will be different?

If it is already a habit for you to check supplement/nutrition facts panels you'll notice that the carbohydrate content of most powdered meal replacements will remain the same. Yet fans of nutritional bars will notice an increase in total carbohydrates. This change is a result of a recent FDA ruling that requires nutrients, which are chemically classified as polyols or sugar alcohols, to be listed as part of this number.

Alcohol in protein bars?

This is a different kind of alcohol than you will find at a liquor store. In fact, the alcohol in protein bars is a syrupy substance that is colorless and odorless yet sweet-tasting. Its chemical structure easily creates a strong bond with water molecules so it functions to keep moisture from evaporating and not allow the bar to become hard enough to chip a tooth on. The only other nutrients that are as effective at preventing bars from hardening are concentrated corn or rice syrups and fat. Because is would require quite a lot of sugars and/or fat to preserve the softness of a bar, it's obvious why you wouldn't want these ingredients.

Alcohols or Carbohydrates?

So, why would the alcohols in a nutritional bar be listed as a carbohydrate? The reason has more to do with the current format of nutrition facts panels than any other fact. Here's why - the alchols used in these bars to help minimize the sugar content (they are also used in sugar free candies) and create a soft pleasing texture, contain < 4.32 calories per gram. The fact that they have a caloric value presents a problem for the way supplement and nutrition gacts panels are configured because there are only three caloric yielding categories - proteins, carbohydrates and fats.

When you look at a label, you can estimate the amount of Glycerine and other Sugar Alcohol content. Here's How:


  • The grams (g) of carbohydrates by 4
  • The grams (g) of protein by 4
  • The grams (g) of fat by 9

Then add all those answers and you should get the total number of calories in a serving.


290 Calorie Bar with 30g Protein, 7g Carbs, 7g Fat:
7g of carbs x 4 =28 calories+
30g of protein x 4 =120 calories +
7g of fat x 9 =63 calories
211 calories
79 Calories from sugar alcohols ; 79/4.32 (calories per gram of Glycerine) = approximately 18 grams of sugar alcohols per bar

In order for this to work, all ingredients with caloric values must be classified in one of these three categories. If you tried this with nutritional bars in the past, the number you arrived at would be significantly lower than the calorie content listed on the label. These calorie-yielding alcohols were the reason why. So instead of rewriting all the textbooks, they had to decide where these nutrients could be forced into one of the categories. They couldn't be grouped with fats because they only contein 4.32 calories per gram where fats contain 9. And although they're close in calorie content to both protein and carbohydrates - they were ruled out of the protein category because they don't include any nitrogen-containing molecules (a characteristic used to classify nutrients as proteins.) So they are grouped with carbohydrates, which seems to make sense given their molecular make-up and sweet taste.

But the real question is

Do low carb dieters need to account for sugar alcohols as part of their carbohydrate restriction?

To answer that, let's look at the theory behind low carb diets. The idea is that by limiting carbohydrate intake (mostly the refined variety - i.e. sugars) blood glucose levels will be kept low and in turn control the amount of insulin (the hormone that regulates sugar metabolism.) All this is done with the notion that this will force your body to burn fat (including excess body fat) instead of carbohydrates for fuel and you will lose weight.

The reason these sugar alcohols were not included as part of the total carbohydrate count before is because:

  • they are not a carbohydrate, at least not in the traditional sense;
  • most people who are looking for low carbohydrate foods, bars, meal replacements, etc. are concerned with a blood glucose spike that amplifies their body's insulin reaction to food - sugar alcohols do not significantly affect blood glucose and insulin levels.

You want evidence? The lives of people with diabetes depend upon careful attnetion to and control of their blood sugar (glucose) levels and sugar alcohols have been used for many years to make sweet products (example, "sugar-free" candies) that are suitable for diabetics because it has a negligible effect on blood glucose levels.

So the next time you pick up your favorite protein bar you may see a significant (15 grams or more!) increase in the "Total Carbohydrates" listing. Before you throw it back, do a little math and check if the increase is accounted for because of the sugar alcohol content.