Carbs and bars: do you really know how many carbs are in your nutritional supplements?

Carbs and bars: do you really know how many carbs are in your nutritional supplements?

Luke Bucci

Carbohydrate counting has been an essential element in bodybuilding diets for decades. Even mainstream doctors and scientists have begun promoting lower-carb diets. (Do Sugar Busters! and The Zone ring a bell?) To fill this growing demand, companies have created many supplements that promise low carbohydrates. Common among these are various “sports nutrition” bars.

As you shop for supplements, you may notice that you don’t see nutrition bars labeled “low carb.” If they really do have low carbs, why don’t labels say “low carb” or “low carbohydrates”? Are you getting more carbs than the label says?

According to recent news reports, you are. But these reports of overloaded “low-carb” bars are misleading. This isn’t helped by the fact that labeling requirements established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mean that some low-carb supplements will soon have higher amounts of carbs listed on the label even though the product hasn’t changed at all.

Confused? Follow us as we lead you through the issues and facts and give you the knowledge you’ll need to choose supplements that will help you meet your bodybuilding goals.

THE GOVERNMENT’S CARD IS NOT A BODYDUILDER’S CARB The source of all the controversy is actually quite simple: The government’s definition of carbohydrate is not the same as a bodybuilder’s definition of carbohydrate. Since the government strictly regulates how ingredients are defined and listed on nutritional supplements, it is up to you to translate the information from broad regulatory terms to practical use. You must learn how to distinguish the carbs you need to count from those you don’t need to worry about.

All carbohydrates are not the same. Not by a long shot. There are many kinds of carbohydrates in our foods and diets–some provide calories and some do not. It’s like choosing a beverage. You could have a beer or you could have water. Both are liquids, but one’s full of calories and the other is not. It’s easy to distinguish between the two beverages, but it’s not as easy to distinguish different carbs. You need to learn how to decipher package labels. Here are the carbs you need to count and the ones you don’t.

Glucose is the bodybuilder’s carb. It is the main carbohydrate source of energy in the body. Glucose contains four calories per gram (see sidebar for more on glucose). Starches (complex carbs) are nothing more than glucose molecules chemically linked together. If you’re on a low-carb cutting diet, therefore, glucose is — along with other simple and refined sugars — the type of carb you want to reduce.

One example of a carbohydrate that doesn’t count is cellulose, an insoluble fiber that imparts zero calories per gram. Cellulose is not digested and passes through the body mostly unchanged. Still, the label includes cellulose in the carb count. That’s why some of the numbers on labels — for total carbs and total calories — don’t always add up.

The carbs you don’t need to count for bodybuilding purposes include glycerol (glycerin), maltitol, sorbitol and fiber. These do not metabolize the way glucose does.

Actually, regulations governing foods and supplements define “carbohydrate” as the remaining nutrient after protein, fat, moisture and ash have been subtracted from the total weight of a product. This sweeping definition, unbelievably held over from the mid-1800s, does not accurately reflect current scientific data. This definition is still in place nonetheless.

Carbohydrates such as glycerol are digested but are not converted by humans into glucose — or at least not immediately into glucose — which means you’re likely to bum them off before they stick. You don’t need to tally these carbs, but the government now requires supplement manufacturers to count them and put them on the label.


Nutrition labels will use the term “Total Carb” to designate carb content that includes all of the government-defined substances. So, a Total Carb declaration based on the simple process of elimination explained earlier can actually be misleading and inaccurate to carb-conscious consumers.

In the past, nonglucose carbohydrates, such as glycerol, were not counted or included on labels. This was done not to deceive but rather to more accurately reflect what the manufacturers believed about how the bodies of athletes process these ingredients. Products did account for these carbohydrates under “Calories” on the label. However, the FDA requires that glycerol — as well as other carbohydrates that do not immediately impact normal glucose levels — be included in the carb tally in the Nutrition Facts panel on products.


Look at the label of a nutrition bar. Check out the subcomponent lines “Dietary Fiber” and “Sugars” under Total Carb. Don’t count grams of fiber in your daily carb total.

The Total Carb listing on a label might say the bar includes 20 grams (g) of carbs. But after you finish reading the rest of the label, you might determine that the bar contains only 3 g of carbs for all practical purposes. That’s three glucose grams and 17 nonglucose grams. That’s a huge difference.

Labels often spell it out for you. Manufacturers are now providing additional statements, usually placed below the Nutrition Facts box. There you will find an explanation of which carbohydrates contribute to calories and which do not. For example, the label on a nutrition bar might state “Total Garb 20 g–15 g are from glycerin (glycerol) and 2 g are from maltitol, both of which have a negligible impact on normal blood sugar levels.” That means the bar provides only 3 g of bodybuilder carbs. That’s a low-carb bar for all practical purposes, despite what else the label says.

More help is on the way. The Carbohydrate Coalition, a group of supplement manufacturers, proposes to expand current labeling regulations to include an explanation of which carbohydrates are not typical and do not raise blood glucose. Categories such as “Low Glycemic Index Carbohydrates,” “Caloric Carbohydrates” or “Net-Impact Carbohydrates” will be used to point out how many of the calories from carbohydrates are really present in a product.

LABELS CANNOT SAY “LOW CARB” BY LAW There is no legal definition of what “low in carbohydrates” means. Thus, the FDA prohibits low-carb claims. Those products that are formulated to minimize the effect of glucose carbs may not be as easy to find as a result. That’s why you’ve got to learn to read the labels.

These regulatory changes might affect the labels on some of the products you’ve been using. The products themselves haven’t changed, just the labels. These are the same items you have been using successfully as part of your low-carb diet. Your body won’t react differently to the ingredients, no matter how they are labeled.

Remember the bottom line: The Total Carb number of grams on the label may include ingredients that do not affect blood glucose levels and therefore won’t impact your fitness or bodybuilding diet. The carb count on the label might reflect the technical definition of carbs as mandated by the FDA, but this total includes carbs that are not glucose.

Be smart. Glycerol (glycerin) carbs are not glucose carbs as far as bodybuilders are concerned. Remember, read the labels!


Most of the glucose in our bodies comes from what we eat. Glucose is derived mainly from the digestion of starches, such as those found in wheat flour (e.g., bread, pasta, cookies, cakes and pie crust), rice, corn, potatoes, and rye and other grains. Glucose is also found in fruits and vegetables, and it is added to regular soft drinks and other drinks, usually as corn syrup. Other sugars found in foods, such as sucrose (table sugar), fructose (fruit sugar) and mannose are converted to glucose almost as quickly as starch is.

Glucose contains four calories per gram. Other carbohydrates are metabolized differently and do not normally supply four calories per gram. Some examples of those are fiber, sugar alcohols (sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol), resistant starch, inulin, fructooligosaccharides and glycerol (glycerin).

Your body needs a steady stream of glucose to feed your brain, muscles and other tissues. That’s why certain people who go on extremely low-carb diets may feel somewhat listless and forgetful. Your body also stores some glucose as starch (in a form called glycogen)

COPYRIGHT 2002 Weider Publications

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