Low-carb food

Low-carb processed foods are no healthier than their conventional equivalents — but can cost a lot more.
 
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  • Updated:22 Aug 2005
 

01 .Introduction

low-carb-foods

In brief

  • Low-carb versions of processed foods such as pasta certainly have less carbohydrate and usually fewer kilojoules — but they don’t always come cheap and there’s little evidence for claims that they’re a healthier option. See Table
  • Food manufacturers replace some of the sugars and starches with synthetic ingredients, so you can miss out on valuable nutrients that come with the less highly processed conventional versions.
  • If you want to lose weight you’re better off eating whole grains, fruit and vegetables, with lean meat, fish and low-fat dairy products — and exercising regularly.

Please note: this information was current as of August 2005 but is still a useful guide today.


The Atkins and other low-carb diets claim to offer a quick fix that’s relatively painless and really works. You can start the day with bacon and eggs, enjoy juicy steaks with just a few green vegetables, and some say you can eat as much butter as you like, and lashings of cream — but you lose weight, and you never feel hungry.

So it’s no surprise that plenty of people have been sucked into the low-carb craze — and the food industry hasn’t been slow to cash in on the action.

Processed and pricey

In the Table we’ve listed some of the low-carb brands you’re most likely to find in the big supermarkets and compared them with the nearest conventional equivalent we could find. The following points stand out:

  • Some products have only marginally less carbs than their conventional equivalent. There's no point in paying extra for them — unless you actually like them better.
  • And these products aren’t necessarily compatible with a genuinely low-carb diet. The initial induction phase of the Atkins diet, for example, restricts you to 20 g of carbs per day. Yet some of the products give you this much, or more, in one hit. Foods as uncompromisingly carbohydrate as pasta don’t fit easily into a low-carb diet.
  • Some misleadingly claim to be healthier generally. CARB OPTIONS says it’s “committed to providing great-tasting lower-carbohydrate food that helps support your healthy lifestyle”. The Atkins.com website has links to research material claiming health benefits for conditions as diverse as diabetes and depression. In reality there’s little evidence to back these claims.
  • To add insult to injury, you can pay up to 500% more for some of these low-carb products.

Tricks of the trade

Manufacturers replace the sugars and starches that are normally in foods with something else that doesn’t count as ‘carbohydrate’ on the nutrition information panel to make ‘low-carb’ versions. Most substitute protein and dietary fibre, which is perfectly OK in principle. But you might be surprised by what’s revealed in the small print on the label.

  • Dietary fibre isn’t always what you might think. Food manufacturers are now allowed to include the synthetic analogues maltodextrin and polydextrose within the term ‘dietary fibre’ (they have to be included in the list of ingredients on the label, but otherwise you wouldn’t know). These synthetic analogues have some of the same nutritional benefits as natural fibre, but they don’t come with the antioxidants and other beneficial phytochemicals that you get from fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Some low-carb products make themselves look more impressive by claiming a much smaller serve size than a conventional equivalent. RAGULETTO CARB OPTIONS Spirals says its serve size is only 50 g, whereas most other packets of pasta that we looked at had serve sizes of at least twice that amount. A serve of EMPOWER LOW CARB Chocolate is only a miserable 14.2 g, whereas CADBURY suggests that a serve of CADBURY Dairy Milk Chocolate is 30 g.

Spin doctors

There's no evidence that low-carb diets are safe beyond about 12 months. They can put you at risk of heart disease and kidney problems, not to mention increasing your chances of developing osteoporosis.

You’re much better off trying to lose weight by exercising more and eating less — and sticking to a diet with plenty of whole grains, fruit and vegies, with lean meat and low-fat dairy products. (Check out our article on Healthy eating.)

 
 

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Nutrients per serve
Brand / product1 Serve size2 (g) Price per serve3 ($) Energy (kJ) Total fat (g) Total carbohydrate (g)
ATKINS Endulge Wafer Crisp Mint Biscuit 28 2.95 595 9.8 1.7
ARNOTT’S Tim Tam Original Biscuit 35 0.43 760 9.5 21.7
ATKINS Advantage Chocolate Shake 330 4.25 723 9.2 2
BIG M Chocolate Milk 330 0.9 1089 10.4 31
EMPOWER LOW CARB Chocolate 14 0.74 327 6.1 7
CADBURY Dairy Milk Chocolate 20 0.4 442 5.9 11.4
CONTINENTAL CARB OPTIONS Chinese Sweet & Sour Stir Fry Sauce 100 0.67 281 0.2 14.5
CONTINENTAL Asia Tonight Chinese Sweet & Sour Stir Fry Sauce 100 0.56 410 0.2 28.6
CONTINENTAL CARB OPTIONS Cup-a-Soup Chicken & Sweet Corn 100 0.38 123 1.3 3.4
CONTINENTAL Cup-a-Soup Gourmet Chicken & Sweet Corn 100 0.38 299 3.2 10.3
CONTINENTAL CARB OPTIONS Pasta & Sauce Four Cheeses 100 0.58 532 4.7 13.4
CONTINENTAL Pasta & Sauce Four Cheeses 100 0.37 572 4.3 19.3
ATKINS Quick Cuisine Pancake and Waffle Syrup 20 0.41
COTTEE’S Maple Flavoured Syrup 20 0.12 227 0 13.3
CARB OPTIONS Apple & Cinnamon Cereal 50 0.55 865 7 20.2
KELLOGG’S Just Right Original Cereal 50 0.44 744 0.8 36
ATKINS Quick Cuisine Creamy Ranch Dressing 20 0.43 307 7.3 0.7
PAUL NEWMAN’S OWN Ranch Dressing 20 0.28 500 12.7 1.1
NESTLE PETERS CARB SMART Vanilla Ice Cream 50 0.37 173 1.4 2.4
PETERS Extra Creamy Vanilla Ice Cream 50 0.23 455 6.3 12
RAGULETTO CARB OPTIONS Bolognaise Sauce 100 0.53 156 0.7 5.6
RAGULETTO Bolognaise Classic Tomato Sauce 100 0.4 238 1.2 9.5
RAGULETTO CARB OPTIONS Spirals (pasta) 100 0.64 1360 1.5 47.4
SAN REMO Large Spirals (pasta) 100 0.4 1518 1.5 73.6
ATKINS Quick Cuisine Bake Mix 20 0.73 278 0.4 2.5
WHITE WINGS Plain Flour 20 0.04 299 0.2 15.7
NATURE’S WAY Slim Right Weight Loss Bar Choc Mint 50 2.98 696 5.1 15
UNCLE TOBYS Chewy Muesli Bars Choc Chip 31 0.47 540 4 19.8
ATKINS Quick Cuisine Ketch-A-Tomato 20 0.6 56 2.7
FOUNTAIN Tomato Sauce 20 0.08 104 5.4
CARLTON Pure Blond Beer 335 2.49 447 3.6
CARLTON Draught Beer 335 2.79 519 0 9
LEAN CUISINE Chicken Cacciatore (frozen dinner) (A) 350 3.98 1180 5.3 35
WEIGHT WATCHERS Chicken Fettuccine (frozen dinner) 320 4.98 1280 4.8 49.6

Table notes

(A) It includes pasta; the packaging claims that it "helps you count your carbohydrate intake"

1 Brand / product
This is a sample of the more than 30 brands/types of ‘low-carb’ processed foods that we found in the major supermarket chains in May 2005. We’ve paired them with the closest conventional equivalent we could find. They’re in no particular order.

2 Serve size
Manufacturers’ recommended serve sizes vary. For ease of comparison we’ve used standardised serve sizes, unless the product is a single unit, such as a muesli bar.

3 Price per serve
This is based on the price we paid in Sydney supermarkets in May 2005. We bought the conventional version in the packet/container size that most closely matched the low-carb product.

This article last reviewed August 2005