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Rating the effectiveness of carbohydrates: Are label claims accurate?

How to read the labels involving carbs and how to tell if they are telling the truth.

As if dieting advice wasn't contradictory enough, now consumers are expected to know which carbohydrates are "effective."

"The popularity of the Atkins diet has spawned a new generation of food labeling for effective and non-effective carbohydrates," says Ruth Litchfield, Iowa State University Extension nutritionist. "Consumers need to remember that for weight management, the only thing that counts is whether the total number of calories consumed is more or less than the total number of calories used."

Litchfield says the scientific basis underlying the current carbohydrate discussion is accurate, but it can be confusing and even misleading to consumers.

"The debate centers on how fast carbohydrates are digested and absorbed into the blood stream," Litchfield says. "These are measurable factors and the resulting number for a particular food is known as its glycemic index."

Some food manufacturers are subtracting the carbohydrates with a lower glycemic index from the total carbohydrates and referring to them as "effective" or "net effective" carbs. Often these subtracted carbohydrates include sugar alcohols (maltitol, lactitol, and sorbitol), glycerin, polysorbate and dextrin.

"While these carbohydrates may have less of an effect on blood glucose level, they still contribute calories to an individual's overall intake," Litchfield says. "Each gram of carbohydrate contributes 4 calories; sugar alcohols contribute 3 calories per gram." Litchfield also reminds consumers that the terms "Low Carb," "Carb Lite" and "Carb Free" are not approved for use as nutrient claims by the US Food and Drug Administration. Companies that use such claims face the risk of enforcement action by the FDA.

"Consumers are entitled -- and perhaps, even, encouraged -- to be skeptical of advertising claims," Litchfield says. "Remember all the "fat-free" labeled products that filled the shelves when fat was identified as the villain? Americans have continued to gain weight since their debut. Fewer grams of fat or carbohydrates do not always mean fewer calories."

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