Editor's Plate: It's time to define carbs

Aug. 12, 2004
The FDA should consider a warning that lower carbs does not equal lower calories
Anyone waiting for the low-carbohydrate diet craze to burn itself out better not hold his breath. While few of the "establishment's" experts on diet and nutrition give it much credence, the low-carb phenomenon is being followed by millions of consumers. Whether we're still writing about it 10 years from now remains to be seen, but it certainly is not going away overnight.

So maybe it's time for the regulatory world to embrace the Atkins diet and other low-carb approaches and impose order on a movement that could easily and quickly spin out of control, harming consumers and the food industry's reputation in the process.

That, more or less, is the job facing the Food and Drug Administration. Responding to petitions from the Grocery Manufacturers of America and others, the agency has agreed to take on the job of defining what constitutes a low-carb claim, as well as other issues relating to carbohydrates.

GMA's petition describes the landscape: "Today, some consumers are intensely interested in monitoring and modulating their carbohydrate intake and are requesting additional information and products to support these objectives. In response to escalating demand, food products are being newly marketed or modified. Restaurants are adopting new 'carbohydrate-conscious' menus. Carbohydrate-related labeling is growing at an exponential pace. In the absence of clearly defined and consistent standards, consumers are increasingly subjected to a dizzying array of confusing, inconsistent and potentially misleading carbohydrate claims."

While this is a critical and overdue project, a trickier job will be to decide if there is or should be a difference between total carbs and net carbs (or effective carbs or net-impact carbs or ?). That appears to be the area with the most potential for abuse. While FDA officials have acknowledged problems with food marketers qualifying carbohydrates in this manner, the agency has not firmly committed to settling the issue. But it certainly should.

Seven grams of carbohydrate appears to be a shoo-in for the upper limit on a "low carb" claim. But what constitutes "reduced carbs?" There even appears to be some debate over what makes a product "carbohydrate-free." The agency also may need to grapple with or prohibit the use of such terms as "carb fit," "carb options" or "carb counting," if they are inappropriately applied to foods, because consumers already have come to believe those terms mean fewer carbohydrates.

While it's a tall order, the FDA has done it before. Quantifying calories and fat was not easy, as I recall, but the government gave us something we can live with. But I'm not sure the agency has ever grappled with the likes of a net-impact anything. Not being a diabetic, I'm not sure if a carbohydrate that doesn't raise my blood sugar ceases to be a carbohydrate or, more to the point, if it will not add to my weight.

But calories definitely add to my weight. I'm sold on the basic science that "calories in must equal calories out in order to control weight," those were the exact words of FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford on March 12 when he announced FDA's strategy to combat obesity. While acknowledging carbohydrates is a bow to the current reality, the agency should consider requiring some additional warning that lower carbohydrates do not equal lower calories -- just as "not a low-calorie food" is required on foods that make a "no sugar added" claim.

E-mail Dave at [email protected].

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