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What’s new in low-carb foods

“Today” food editor Phil Lempert offers a look at the latest products to hit the market.
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There’s no question about it, low-carb is the “it” diet. Magazine covers proclaim its success. Stores that specialize in selling just low-carb foods are popping up while our traditional supermarkets are clearing their shelves to accommodate this fast-growing category. Low-carb diet books are among the best sellers and their authors are treated like superstars. It’s the philosophies of the Atkins Diet, The Zone, Sugar Busters and the South Beach diet, that are being discussed by the nation’s overweight as well as our most physically fit.

The truth is that the low-carb diet is not new. It’s beginnings date back to 1863 when a fat undertaker, best known for his celebrity clientele, shared his physician’s advice to stop eating bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer and potatoes in a self-published work entitled “Letter on Corpulence.”

William Banting found that at age 66, along with his aches and pains and inability to “stoop to tie his own shoes,” his sight and hearing were failing him; and therefore decided to visit Dr. William Harvey, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons who specialized in ear, nose and throat problems. Harvey had just returned from a symposium where a new theory about diabetes was discussed, and the good doctor began thinking about the relationship between what we ate and the result on our bodies.

Banting followed Dr. Harvey’s diet and in a one-year period (from August 1862 to August 1863) lost approximately one pound a week — a total of 46 pounds and 12 1/4 inches off his waist. It’s important to note that Banting’s weight loss was in fact gradual (approximately one pound a week) and he was able to keep the excess fat off for the rest of his 81 years.

Over the next 100 years, many others who read “Letter on Corpulence” experimented with the idea of low-carb dieting, but it wasn’t until 1972 when Dr. Robert Atkins published “Diet Revolution” that low carb found its followers. The Atkins diet achieved even greater publicity when the American Medical Association questioned the safety of his diet and was called to testify to substantiate his program at a Senate hearing.

For the next 30 years, Atkins (who died earlier this year from a head injury after a fall) fought to substantiate and prove the low-carb theories and was finally vindicated by the established medical community in the New England Journal of Medicine one month after his death. The published findings, based on two studies, found that the subjects that followed the Atkins diet did result in twice as much weight loss as those on a low-fat diet over a six-month period. However, they also found that the Atkins dieters regained about a third of their weight vs. one-fifth for the low-fat dieters.

Atkins’ theory was that the cells that convert carbohydrates into glucose (which becomes energy) do not work correctly in many overweight people and creates a symptom called “insulin resistance”. His program suggests that by reducing carbohydrate intake to less than 40 grams a day our bodies shift into a process called “ketosis” in which our bodies burn fat as fuel.

Researchers from Stanford and Yale Universities reviewed 107 low-carb diet studies, and concluded that people who go on low-carbohydrate diets typically lose weight; but the reason is a restricted caloric intake and longer diet duration — not carbohydrate restriction. They also found no short-term adverse effects of the diet, but also added that there is insufficient evidence on the diet’s long-term effects and impact on people over the age of 53.

Dena Bravata, M.D. the lead author of the Stanford study cautions that a low-carb diet often induces a diuretic effect and subsequently the dieter’s body may become dehydrated and flush out necessary fluids, calcium and other vitamins and minerals (which may cause kidney stones).

WHAT IS THE LOW-CARB DIET? The low-carb diet as we know it goes well beyond the menu plan that William Banting detailed; and is based on the theory that over-consumption of carbohydrates, and the way our bodies process them, is the key factor in obesity. The diet is based on restricting processed and refined carbohydrates and limiting the consumption of sugars, breads, pastas and starchy vegetables. The diets do differ when it comes to recommending just how low carbohydrate intake should be — some say 20 grams a day, while others suggest 60 grams a day.

LOW-CARB COMES TO THE SUPERMARKET, BUT READ THOSE LABELS CAREFULLY! Check out the supermarket shelves these days and there are hundreds of products touting their “low-carb” benefits. But the truth is that the Food & Drug Administration has not issued a definition of “low-carb” and as a result any such claims are unauthorized, and listing “low-carb” on the front of the package is not allowed. As with all foods, the most important information to read is not the front of the box, but the Nutritional Facts panel and ingredients.

The National Academy of Sciences’ dietary recommendation is that adults consume 45 to 65 percent of our calories from carbohydrates, 20 to 35 percent from fat and 10 to 35 percent from protein.

Many of the new low-carb foods also proclaim “net carbs,” “net-impact carbs” or “net-effective carbs,” which also does not have an FDA definition, and is a questionable calculation according to Stamford’s Dr. Bravata. These numbers are determined by subtracting from total carbohydrates those carbohydrates that have a negligible effect on blood sugar. Examples are fiber and sugar alcohols including: maltitol, lactitol, sorbitol and erythritol.

SO WHAT’S NEW ON THE LOW-CARB SHELVES? Anheuser-Busch is pushing Michelob Ultra as the ultimate low-carb beer with their “lose the carbs, not the taste” advertising and 95 calories and 2.6 carbs. As a comparison, a margarita contains about 24 grams, a Pina Colada contains 12 grams, but a glass of wine averages just three grams!

Atkins has introduced a new line of breakfast bars with just two grams of “net carbs” and ice creams called Endulge with only 4 grams of “net carbs.”

Back to Nature Hi-Lo cereal has 15 grams of soy protein, five grams of fiber and contains 12 grams of carbohydrates. With a lightly sweet taste and crunchy texture, Hi-Lo also contains soy isoflavones and natural antioxidants derived from rosemary extract and vitamin E.

Keto Foods & Snacks offers the largest line of low-carb foods: frosted flakes with 17 grams of protein and three grams of “effective carbs” (which is 70 percent less than the leading brand of frosted flakes), Keto ketchup with only one gram “net carbs” (80 percent less than the leading brand) and no added sugar, and Keto spaghetti and other pastas which have 75 percent less carbs (five “net carbs”) and contain 22 grams of soy protein per serving.

Mike’s low-carb frozen gourmet entrees (14 grams or less of “net carbs”) and Cheesecakes (seven grams of “net carbs”) is a brand new line of low-carb dinners prepared by restaurant chefs, which touts using only top-grade, all-natural meats and seafood.

Russell Stover Low-Carb Mint Patties have only one gram of “net-effective carbs” (as compared to about 22 grams of carbs in a typical candy bar) and contains sugar alcohol, which does not increase levels of blood sugar or insulin which is also important to diabetics.

AND WHAT ABOUT THOSE LOW-CARB ‘ENERGY BARS’, WHICH SEEM TO BE EVERYWHERE? Well, read those labels carefully. Some are lower in carbs — for example six grams — while others we found have over 30 grams!

As always, the key to dieting is to eat less and exercise more! And I’m trying to do just that. So far I’ve lost six pounds over five weeks by just watching what I eat and exercising a bit more, and taking advice from our readers comments. Check out Phil’s Fat Diaries at


For more information about low-carb products, visit Phil’s Web site at:

For more information about low-carb diets visit the USDA’s Web site at:

You can also visit:

American Dietetic Association:

Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, analyzes the food marketing industry to keep consumers up-to-date about cutting-edge marketing trends. He is a regular “Today” show contributor, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and host of Shopping Smart of the WOR Radio Network. For more food and health information, you can check out Phil’s Web site at: