Nutrition Labels Lie

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The terms “complex” and “simple” carbs are used all the time but how useful are they really? Does the FDA Nutrition Facts Label give us any useful information when they list “sugars”?

I’d argue that the answers to both questions is a strong “No” and that it’s much more important to look at the metabolic effects of specific foods on your body as opposed to using the criteria that the FDA uses to classify “sugars.” Many carbohydrate sources labeled “complex” are things you really don’t want to be eating and many foods that are high in FDA labelled  “sugars” are foods that you definitely want to consume.

The methodology that the FDA uses in defining sugars is to classify all mono- and di-saccharides as “sugars” on the nutrition facts label. This is simply a measure of the number of carbon molecules in each chain of carbohydrate. It’s really not a helpful measure in any way and can actually be misleading, as it doesn’t tell you about how your body will metabolize the substance. If we look at some foods that by almost anyone’s standards are healthy and unprocessed you’ll see what I mean.

Believe it or not, broccoli, almonds and asparagus are all foods that are high in “sugars” according to the US Food and Drug Administration’s Nutrition Facts label. How crazy is that?

A package of broccoli contains 13g total carbs, 8g fiber, 4g “sugars” according to the FDA definition (it doesn’t add up perfectly because of rounding). That means that after you subtract the fiber carbs from the total carbs, 80% of the “net” or “effective” carbs come from sugars! How helpful is that? Not very if your plan is to use the sugars listing on the nutrition facts labels to determine what you should and shouldn’t eat. Check it out for yourself here: www.nutritiondata.com/vegetables-and-vegetable-products

Let’s look at a cup of almonds. It contains 27g total carbs, 16g fiber and 7g “sugars”. That means that 64% of the non-fiber carbs are considered “sugars”!  You can see it for yourself here: www.nutritiondata.com/nut-and-seed-products

Finally, let’s look at Chocolate Pudding Mix, something you definitely don’t want to be eating if you want to stay lean and healthy. A package contains 88g total carbs, 4g fiber and 42g “sugars’. That means that only 50% of the non-fiber carbs are considered “sugars”. See it with your own eyes here: www.nutritiondata.com/sweets

Does that mean that eating chocolate pudding (50% “sugars”) is somehow better than eating broccoli (80% “sugars”) or almonds (64% “sugars”)?

Not on your life.

The reason that the chocolate pudding rates lower in “sugars” than broccoli, asparagus, almonds and many other healthy foods is that simply looking at the length of the carbon chains in a food isn’t helpful. Because chocolate pudding uses maltodextrin (technically a longer chain and thus not a mono- or di-saccharide hence its classification as a “complex” carb) it doesn’t have as many “sugars” on the label even thought it’s DEFINITELY not something you want to be eating if your goal is to get or stay lean.

Clearly, looking at a carbohydrate’s metabolic effects in your body is a much more accurate and useful way to look at different sugars, as opposed to the length of their carbon chains.

So my advice to you is that when looking at the carbohydrates on a food’s “Nutrition Facts” label, look first at total carbohydrates, then subtract the fiber and you’ll then arrive at the food’s true “usable” carbohydrate amount. You can ignore the “sugars’ number because it’s not helpful at all unless you’re in chemistry class or have a desire to visualize the length of the carbon chains in the food you’re eating. ;-)