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Read the Label!                         
Don't believe everything you read. . .

On May 8, 1994, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring all food items packaged for retail sale in the U.S. be labeled to extensively illustrate in grams and milligrams the nutritional content of the food within. There is little disagreement that this was a positive and necessary step, but there's also little doubt that reporting errors are common and problematic.

It's a bit worse for those of us who are counting carbohydrates because the number needs to be precise for us. Since many low-carbers need to keep their daily count as low as 20 grams per day (at times even less), obviously every gram counts. So a product that list 135 calories when they meant 139 calories isn't going to break anyone's calorie-based diet, but a product that lists at 1 gram of carbohydrate when they meant 5 grams, is a big problem. At 1 gram, you might feel comfortable having 4-6 portions, thinking you're getting 4-6 grams, but what if 6 portions gets you 30 grams because of a labeling error? Even worse, when a company realizes their mistake, if it's what the FDA considers to be a non-volatile issue, they are allowed to not only leave the erroneous products on the shelf, but can use up their existing supply of labels. An error in, say, Saturated Fat count is considered a dangerous ommission to the FDA, but carbs are considered harmless. In fact, when components of food are analyzed to determine values, they accurately assess protein and fat, then water content. What's left is assumed to be carbohydrate and that's how it's labeled. It's called calculating "by difference."

Barbara at Expert Foods has done an in-depth FAQ on nutrition labels that explains it all better than we can here, so for further information, consult her terrific FAQ.

Be a Label Detective. . .

Be a careful reader. Read all of the label. Many times the truth can be found in either the total calorie count, or in the list of ingredients.

kedem biscuits Here is a perfect example: Several times now visitors have written to me to tell me how much they enjoy those "delicate little
Kedem Tea Biscuits." They go on to tell me how they're only 1 gram of carbs per each 2 cookies and they enjoy having them every day now.

One look at the label lets you know there's a big error there, but many people simply pick up a product and check the carb counts. And even more frightening, some of the low-carb vendors are now carrying these Tea Biscuits and selling them to you, the consumer. I'm sure they're very tasty little things. But, they are anything but low-carb... Let's take a look at the ingredients (this is identical for both their "regular" and their "vanilla" varieties):

Wheat flour, sugar, vegetable shortening, baking powder, salt, artificial flavors.

Okay, see that? First ingredient — flour (pure carbohydrate). Second ingredient — sugar. Yep, plain white sugar. Do I need to say this is pure carbohydrate? Then, for good measure, it's followed up by its only other significant ingredient — shortening. Trans fats — the most dangerous kind. So we are expected to believe because a label prints a "1 gram" next to carb count on the label that a product that is 3/4 pure carbohydrate and 1/4 trans fats is an acceptable low-carb snack? I have to say the exact same ingredients are found in garden variety sandwich cookies. And in Twinkies, as a matter of fact. A quick look at the Kedem Tea Biscuit label shows the following:

N u t r i t i o n   F a c t s
Serving Size:   2 Biscuits
Calories:   22
Total Fat:   1g
Total Carbohydrate:   1g
Sugar:   2.5g
Protein:   .4g

Label Reading Can we see the problem here? First, how can there be only 1 gram of carbs when there's 2.5 grams of sugar alone? And the sugar count is not including the white flour in the ingredients. If the calorie count is correct, and the fat grams are correct, there are at least 3 and maybe 4 times more carbs than the label says. Add to that, they're the worst kind of carbs. Not the healthy kind you get from nutrient packed veggies, but the junk carbs that heighten cravings, cause stalls, and got you here in the first place. A look at their Sugarfree Biscuits reveals even more. The ingredients are the same except sugar is traded for maltitol syrup (a sugar alcohol), yet the panel says the same number of cookies is 10 carbs, not 1 carb. So that's 10 times as high a count. And I suspect these little biscuits masquerading as "low-carb" carry a similar carb count.

I wrote the company and they acknowledged the label is in error on that point and when they next create new labels (I haven't a clue when that will be), it will be corrected. How often is this happening? More often than you think...

Here's another example... Take
Murray Sugar Free Cookies... Unfortunately, many low-carb sites are selling these and we can't figure why. Let's look at their label (the Chocolate variety in this case, though they are all similar) to see why we feel that way:

N u t r i t i o n   F a c t s
Serving Size:   3 Cookies
Calories:   120
Total Fat:   6g
Total Carbohydrate:   19g
Dietary Fiber:   1g
Sugar Alcohols:   5g
Protein:   2g
Murray Sugar Free Cookies Now, at first glance, it appears these are surely lower in carbs than most treats in the grocery, so perhaps they can be had in a low-carb diet? First, let's talk logistics — at 18 grams for 3 cookies (after fiber) that's 6 grams per cookie and you'll want more than one. And no matter what some vendors tell you, sugar alcohols cannot be "written off" entirely. They metabolize more slowly and incompletely (hence their unpleasant effects in the bathroom), but they still metabolize as a carbohydrate. However, the disturbing part of THIS product isn't the nutrition panel, OR the serving sizes — it's the INGREDIENTS. Look:
  1. ENRICHED WHEAT FLOUR (This is plain bleached white flour, folks. The body sees it just like sugar.)
  2. PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED VEGETABLE SHORTENING (These are dangerous trans-fats. Expect weight stalls and raised triglyceride levels when you eat hydrogenated oils.)
  3. SORBITOL and LACTITOL (Sugar Alcohols — see comments above.)
  5. COCOA
  10. ASPARTAME (We don't recommend anything with aspartame in it — especially baked goods where heating makes aspartame break down into a dangerous substance.)
Ingredients numbers 1, 2, and 10 have no place in a healthful low-carb diet. And they need 6 sweeteners?? Some of their varieties use even MORE sweeteners.

But let's say you're at maintenance (or on a more liberal plan) and can handle a few more carbs than an Atkins or Protein Power plan. Is there a more HEALTHY sugar free cookie that doesn't present these hazards? Yes, there is... though no low-carb merchant I know sells them. They are Joseph's Sugar Free Cookies. Joseph's Sugar Free Cookies

Their Peanut Butter cookies contain 13 carbs for 2 cookies (not taking off for fiber or maltitol) but their ingredients are much healthier. Here they are: Unbleached, unbromated wheat flour, maltitol, peanut flour, canola oil, egg whites, peanuts, peanut butter, baking soda, and baking powder (aluminum free). If you're going to have an occasional treat-cookie, this is the one to have.

Their Lemon, Pecan Shortbread, or Coconut varieties are great crumbled and mixed with almond flour and melted butter to make a pie crust. Yet no low-carb vendor offers these. We always assumed it was because they were too high in carbs, but if so, then why the Murray? (We should note the Joseph's cookies are QUITE large — much bigger than the Murray.)

C'mon... be smart... Nothing that starts with flour and sugar is going to be appropriate for low carbing.

Manny's Tortillas
03/10/02 — ADDENDUM: Recently, we've received many letters from visitors who have asked about a product called Manny's Tortillas: (also known as "Tortillas de Harina" distributed by Mexican Accent, New Berlin, Wisconsin.)   It seems that many low carbers have been eating them (some 4 and 5 of them a day!) because their nutrition panel shows them to contain only 1 gram of carbohydrate (and according to the panel, it's all fiber.) Of course, once again, they talk about how delicious they are...

Well, you might have guessed that if I'm talking about them here, there must be a catch, right? Yes, it's a known labeling error. But let's take a look at that label and see why it should have been obvious to you, the consumer. First, the nutrition panel:

Manny's Tortillas N u t r i t i o n   F a c t s
Serving Size:   1 Tortilla
Calories:   70
Calories from fat:   10
Total Fat:   1g
Saturated Fat:   0 g
Cholesterol:   0g
Sodium:   110mg
Total Carbohydrate:   1g
Dietary Fiber:   1g
Sugars:   0g
Protein:   1g

Now unless these are made with magic, those numbers cannot be right... With 1 gram of fat, 1 gram of protein, and 1 gram of carbs, these must be made of fairy dust. Well... maybe not. Let's look at the real ingredients:

Enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin aand folic acid), water, hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, leavening agent (bicabonate of soda, cornstarch, sodium, aluminum sulfate, momocalcium phosphate), salt, fumeric acid, potassium sorbate and sodium propionate to retard mold and conditioner (soy flour, calcium sulfate and sorbic acid.)

Okay, so they're made almost entirely of white flour with some trans fat (hydrogenated oil) mixed in. If calories are correct (and these are low compared to other brands with identical ingredients) these tortillas are at least 14 grams of carbohydrate apiece! So if you'd been eating 4 a day, thinking they were less than a gram of carbs each, you were getting 64 carbs JUST FROM THE TORTILLAS in your diet.

Put your Ellery Queen hat on and be a label detective when you shop. Remember, nothing with its primary ingredient being flour can be appropriate for your new way of life!

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