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Cashing in on the low-carb craze.

Old conventional wisdom: Low-carb dieters can't eat bread, pasta, cakes, cookies, candy, or other sweets.

New conventional wisdom: Low-carb dieters can eat almost any food, as long as they buy higher-priced, low-carbohydrate versions.

Well, not exactly low-carb. The supermarket shelves are exploding with "carb smart," "carb aware," and "carb sense" foods designed for "low-carb lifestyles." Here's a guide to help you wade through the flood of new foods carrying claims about carbohydrates.

* Low-carb claims are illegal. The Food and Drug Administration prohibits any nutrient claim that it hasn't defined. To their credit, some companies are waiting for the FDA to define "low-carb," just as it has defined "low-fat" and "low-calorie." But others are interpreting the rule to mean that only "low-carb" claims are banned.

Clearly, a claim like "carb countdown" or "carb fit" implies that the food has fewer carbohydrates than its counterparts. But most labels don't bother to back up the claim by comparing the new item to those counterparts (as the FDA requires for a "reduced-fat" or "reduced-calorie" claim). And in some cases, "lower-carb" foods don't have fewer carbohydrates ... they just have fewer "net carbs."

* Net carbs are unclear. Manufacturers get "net carbs" by subtracting sugar alcohols, fiber, and other carbohydrates that supposedly have "minimal impact on blood sugar." Is a carb that doesn't raise blood sugar no longer a carb? Should a company have to test a food to make sure that it doesn't boost blood sugar? What if companies started deducting fats that don't raise blood cholesterol to get "net fats" or sodium salts that don't raise blood pressure to get "net sodium"? The Nutrition Facts panel would become a zoo of competing numbers that would confuse and, in some cases, mislead the public.

* "Minimal impact on your blood sugar" doesn't mean minimal impact on your hips. The low-carb industry assumes that if your net carbs are low, your weight will follow. But the science just isn't there (see Jan./Feb. 2004, cover story). It's a huge leap of faith to assume that a low-carb steak fajita dinner with 1,000 calories won't end up on your belly or backside.

Not so long ago, dieters assumed that "fat-free" on the package meant "fat-free" on the body. Lo and behold, they found that you can get fat on fat-free ice cream.

Now many dieters are assuming that the carbs--and the calories--in "low-carb" foods don't count. It didn't take long for them to forget the fat-free lesson: there is no free lunch. Except for the food industry, which apparently gets to cash in on any diet craze that comes along, whether it ultimately leads to fatter Americans or not.

"Before the food industry got involved, people lost weight on low-fat diets because they lowered their calorie intake," says Marion Franz, co-chair of the committee that issued the American Diabetes Association's current nutrition recommendations. "Now that the food industry is involved, it's going to be difficult for people to lower their calorie intake on low-carb diets."

Here are a few potholes to avoid if you decide to take the low-carb road.


If you want low-carb dining, a growing number of restaurants are happy to oblige. Most simply serve meat, seafood, or poultry without the potatoes, pasta, rice, or bun. Take Ruby Tuesday. Its "Smart Eating" menu is a "feel good about yourself" way of eating, says the company. And Ruby deserves credit for frying only in trans-fat-free canola oil. But don't let your guard down.

The Smart Eating menu lists calories (and other nutrients) for the salad bar, but only carbohydrates for everything else. Would customers think twice before digging into the Spicy Buffalo Wings, Low-Carb Steak or Combo Fajitas, Black & Bleu Burger Wrap, Ruby's Ribeye, Spring Chicken Salad, or Cajun Chicken Salad if they knew that each had roughly 1,000 calories? A few Smart Eating items deserve the name.

The Low-Carb Catch (450 calories) and the Grilled Cajun Chicken (310 calories) include either fish (Tilapia) or chicken accompanied by steamed broccoli and creamed mashed cauliflower. And the three wraps--Turkey Burger, Turkey, or Spicy Chicken--enclose 260 to 400 calories inside a whole-grain tortilla. But those are the exceptions.

Bottom Line: You can't go wrong with grilled chicken or seafood with vegetables (go easy on the cream-laden cauliflower). But a steady diet of red meat may raise your risk of prostate or colon cancer. And if these 1,000-calorie meals thwart your efforts to lose weight, what will all their saturated fat do to your arteries? Ruby's menu says that saturated fat "contributes directly to bad health." Maybe that's why low-carb menus at Ruby, Chili's, T.G.I. Friday's, Don Pablo's, and Holiday Inn keep both calories and sat-fat numbers a secret.


"Lose the carbs. Not the taste," say the Michelob Ultra ads, which feature lean, muscled men and women in mid-push-up (or sit-up). "An extended mashing process" slices the carbs from 13 grams to 2.6 grams and the calories from 155 to 95. Not a bad savings ... but not exactly a breakthrough. As the Web site--but not the ads--makes clear, light beers made by Miller, Coors, and Corona have about the same number of carbs as Michelob Ultra (though Michelob Light is higher). The big difference: "light" is out, "low-carb" is in.

Bottom Line: Like light beers, lower-carb beers can save you some calories.



Burger King is doing its best to fight America's obesity epidemic. Without any prodding from health experts, it's offering Low-Carb Whoppers. Instead of a bun, the meat and fixin's come in a plastic salad container.

And--talk about public service--BK has axed the burger's mayo (160 unnecessary calories) and its ketchup. The chain must figure that the ketchup's carbs (four grams) and calories (15) are a major reason why people can't fit into stadium and airplane seats.

The good news: Burger King also offers a Low-Carb Chicken Whopper with only 160 calories and one gram of saturated-plus-trans fat. (Get it with a side salad, not fries.)

If BK wanted to perform a real public service, it would slap numbers for all its foods on the menu board. That would let customers compare the Low-Carb Chicken Whopper to the Low-Carb Whopper (280 calories and 10 grams of sat-plus-trans fat) or the Low-Carb Double Whopper with Cheese (630 calories and 25 grams of sat-plus-trans).

Then again, why worry about calories and fat when you've cut back on ketchup?

Bottom Line: With or without the bun, a fatty burger is no health food. If you want fewer carbs and less fat, go for the bun-less Low-Carb Chicken Whopper.



Looking for lower-carb condiments? Heinz One Carb Ketchup and Atkins Quick Quisine Ketch-A-Tomato each has only one gram of "net carbohydrates" per tablespoon because they're made with sucralose, a safe artificial sweetener, instead of sugar. Of course, a 15-calorie tablespoon of ordinary ketchup has only four grams of carbs.

Likewise, Wish-Bone now has a "Carb Options" Italian or Ranch dressing with no carbs at all. But a two-tablespoon serving of regular Wish-Bone Ranch has just one gram of carbs, while regular Wish-Bone Italian has three. Whoopie.

Bottom Line: There's nothing wrong with lower-carb condiments. But it's hard to imagine that the two or three grams of carbs--and five or ten calories--that you save will curb the nation's weight problem.



The bread industry is panicked over the low-carb craze. So some bakers are trying to jump on the bandwagon.

Most companies cut the carbs largely by replacing some of their wheat flour with wheat gluten and wheat protein (which isn't gritty like soy protein). And you can't go wrong with the extra fiber that most companies add.

Just don't expect a huge difference between these breads and their ordinary cousins. Arnold's and Oroweat's Carb Counting Breads, for example, have six grams of carbs after they subtract the three grams of fiber in each slice. And Roman Meal's Carb Aware Whole Wheat Bread has seven grams of carbs after it deducts its two grams of fiber. But Arnold's ordinary Stoneground 100% Whole Wheat Bread would have only 10 grams of carbohydrates if its label subtracted the two grams of fiber in each slice.

Thomas's Carb Counting Bagels lose roughly half of their carbs simply because they weigh less than the company's regular bagels. But even with some extra oat fiber, you're still swallowing some 17 grams of "net carbs" in each bagel.

Bottom Line: Lower-carb breads supply fiber that can't hurt and may help cut your risk of heart disease. But check the label to make sure you're saving more than just a few calories or grams of carbs. And don't forget to subtract the fiber from the total carbs in that ordinary bread before you compare it to the "net carbs" in that lower-carb bread.



For a mere $21.99 to $27.99 you can mail order a four-tray pack of Atkins frozen entrees with pasta (Baked Ziti, Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Cacciatore, Chicken Marsala, Four Cheese Macaroni and Cheese, or Meatballs). If that sounds expensive, relax. Even though each 10-ounce tray is about the size of two decks of playing cards, it serves two. Seem skimpy? Don't worry. One bite of the gritty, soy flour pasta and you won't mind sharing.

The macaroni and cheese masks the texture of the pasta slightly better than the beef or chicken. But you pay a price: enough cheese to supply half a day's saturated fat.

Bottom Line: Atkins, DeBoles, and other dry-pasta makers cut about three-quarters of the carbs by replacing the pasta's wheat flour with soy. That's also largely how Atkins' frozen pasta entrees and Morning Start breakfast cereals lose some of their carbs. The only downside: taste.



Subway's "7 subs with 6 grams of fat or less" menu has probably convinced more people to give up burgers and fries than all the public health advice, reports, and brochures combined. Now Subway (like competitor Blimpie) wants a seat on the low-carb train.

Its Atkins-Friendly Wraps--Chicken Bacon Ranch and Turkey & Bacon Melt--have at least 25 grams of fat, nine of them saturated. That's half a day's worth of damaging fat--more than any of the chain's six-inch subs (except for the Meatball and the Italian BMT). What's more, the Atkins Wraps have about 450 calories. (The "7 under 6" subs have only 230 to 330.)

Bottom Line: Order a lower-fat "7 under 6" sub, but get it inside a tortilla from the Atkins Wraps (they have fewer calories and more fiber than the 6-inch sub rolls). Why swallow the diet doctor's calories-don't-count line if you don't have to?



Carb claims have hit the dairy aisle. Among the first: Breyers CarbSmart Ice Cream and Dannon Light 'n Fit cultured dairy snack (they can't call it yogurt).

Each replaces its added sugars with the safe sugar substitute Splenda (sucralose). Breyers also adds acesulfame potassium, an artificial sweetener that may or may not be safe (it hasn't been adequately tested).

But something has to replace the bulk that's lost with the sugars (about 10 grams in each half-cup). Breyers adds cellulose gel, gums, and the sugar alcohol sorbitol. And both desserts get some body from their cream. Unfortunately, that gives a puny half-cup of CarbSmart ice cream six grams of saturated fat and 1 30 calories--about the same as Breyers regular ice cream. While Dannon keeps the sat fat down to two grams by packaging Light 'n Fit Carb Control in four-ounce cups, the company's regular (six-ounce) Light 'n Fit yogurt has no sat fat.

Bottom Line: If you're losing weight, the saturated fat in lower-carb yogurt or ice cream may not matter. If you're stable or (ouch) gaining, you may be better off with Dannon's fat-free Light 'n Fit yogurt or Breyers 98% Fat Free, All Natural Light, or No Sugar Added ice creams. The ice creams have 90 to 140 calories but no more than three grams of sat fat per half-cup.



The "0.2 carbs per piece" on Russell Stover's (illegally labeled) Low Carb Solid Milk Chocolate may lead carb cutters to think they can munch all day. Yet a five-piece serving delivers half a day's saturated fat. Granted, if you're shedding pounds, the sat fat won't boost your LDL ("bad") cholesterol. But at 190 calories in every five pieces, the extra pounds may not exactly melt away.

Russell cuts the carbs by replacing the chocolate's sugar with the sugar alcohol maltitol. But thanks to the 21 grams of maltitol in each serving, the label must disclose that "excessive consumption may cause a laxative effect." Russell puts that warning (along with a "not a reduced calorie food") in scrunched, tiny white type on a metallic-red background. That way, everyone with a magnifying glass will be sure to see it.

Bottom Line: As few as 10 grams of some sugar alcohols can cause diarrhea, bloating, or cramps in some people. Almost all lower-carb foods that substitute sugar alcohols for sugar have at least a few grams, and many people now consume several foods that contain sugar alcohols every day.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Center for Science in the Public Interest
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Author:Liebman, Bonnie
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Mar 1, 2004
Previous Article:Fit food.
Next Article:Kids' cuisine: "what would you like with your fries?".

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