What Are Net Carbs And How To Calculate Them?

Reviewed By Registered Dietitian Ranelle Kirchner, MS, LDN, RD, CDE
by Charushila Biswas
ISSA Certified Specialist in Fitness & Nutrition

One of the main challenges of low-carb diets is calculating the total carbs consumed. Oh, wait! Or is it net carbs? Confusing, right? In this article, we’ll address this confusion by answering some basic and important questions – what are net carbs, the difference between net carbs and total carbs, and how to calculate net carbs from food labels. So, no more breaking your head. Let’s get our facts straight. Swipe up!

Highlights Of The Article

What Are Net Carbs?


Net carbs is a term invented by food and beverage companies, and it is calculated by subtracting the amounts of fiber and sugar alcohol from the total carbs mentioned in the nutrition label.

The term “net carbs” is not approved by the FDA and is not the true representation of the number of carbs present in a particular food.

So, what’s the purpose of “net carbs” and how does it work? Find out in the next section.

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Why Net Carbs?

Net carbs attract people who want to consume less number of carbs yet enjoy the delicious foods that are marketed. The term “Net Carbs” came into existence as more and more people started following low-carb diets. Food companies noticed a general behavior in their existing and potential customers – buying packaged foods that are low in carbs.

For example, if you don’t know the difference between total carbs and net carbs and compare the carbs in two similar products of different food companies, you will most likely buy the one with the lower number of carbs. What you will miss observing is whether the food label talks about “net carbs” or “total carbs.” There’s also one more reason “net carbs” came into existence. Scroll down to find out.

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How Do Net Carbs Work?


Net carbs work by making people think that they are consuming fewer carbs. Now, this has a little bit of scientific background.

Not all carbs behave the same way in the body. Refined and simple carbs get absorbed quickly, and they raise the blood glucose and blood insulin levels quickly – these are also categorized as high-glycemic index foods.

On the other hand, complex carbs like dietary fiber get digested and absorbed slowly. Other carbohydrates like sugar alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, and other polyols) come from plant products and are altered through a chemical process. These sugar substitutes are not well absorbed, provide fewer calories, and may even have a slight laxative effect.

So, the food companies started a new trend – Net Carbs, which excludes the sugar alcohols, dietary fiber content, and glycerine from the total carb content (1).

This may seem to be perfectly fine, but there are no relevant supporting scientific data to back it up. In fact, some sugar alcohols can raise blood glucose levels and are also higher in saturated and trans fats (2)!

So, this brings us to the next question – are we being tricked? Scroll down to find out.

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Trick Or Treat?


Low-carb diets may help people lose weight. To the layman, the low-carb content in various processed foods may seem attractive and weight loss-friendly, but it may not be the complete truth. Chefs around the world have come up with ideas to make low-cal pizza, low-carb mashed potato, etc. by replacing the main carb or calorie contributing vegetable or ingredient with another healthy whole food.

But that’s not the case with processed foods. To lower the number of carbs and calories in processed foods and yet keep them palatable, food companies use ingredients that are high in trans fats, saturated fats, salt, and other types of carbs and change the portion size. Let’s do a quick fact check:

  • Sugar Alcohols And Polyols – These are hydrogenated carbs that are used as sweeteners and give about 0.2-0.4 Calories/g instead of 4 Kcal/g from completely absorbed carbs. According to the FDA regulations, the food companies must calculate the calories obtained from the sugar alcohols and polyols as 2.4 Kcal/g (3).
  • Dietary Fiber – Dietary fiber is a complex carb that helps increase satiety and adds bulk to the stool (click here to know about high-fiber foods to aid weight loss). Fruits and veggies are rich in pectins and hemicellulose that get fermented in the large intestine and produce fatty acids. The fatty acids are then converted to energy. Cereals mostly contain cellulose, which may or may not be partially fermented. The energy obtained from the dietary fiber is about 1.5-2.5 Kcal/g.
  • Glycerine – Glycerine or glycerol is about 75% as sweet as sucrose. It is recognized as a Safe Food Additive by FDA, and the energy it contributes is 4.32 Kcal/g. It is mainly used in frozen desserts, nutrition bars, and ice creams. According to FDA regulations, synthetic glycerine must be included in the carbs calculation. But many food companies do not consider glycerine as carbs and omit its inclusion.

So, you see, it depends on the food companies on how they decide to declare the carb content. However, we can help you choose the foods that are best for you. Here’s a comparison of a “low-carb” meal with a regular meal. Take a look.

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Comparison Between A Low-Carb Meal And A Regular Meal

  • A low-carb meal is, of course, lower in carb content, BUT it may have lower satiety. This means, you will tend to consume more of the “low-carb” foods, and that may contribute to weight gain.
  • Total carb content of a low-carb meal is 52 g, BUT the calculated net carb is 17 g. The rest 35 g carb is negated.

If the last point got you confused, take a look at how to calculate Net Carbs. Scroll down.

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How To Calculate Net Carbs

Use the following formula to calculate net carbs:

Net Carbs = Total Carbs – (Dietary Fiber + Sugar Alcohols)

So, what is it that you should really look for while trying to lose weight? Total carbs, net carbs, calories, or fats? Let’s find out.

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What Should You Do To Lose Weight?


To lose weight, you have to learn to look beyond total carbs, net carbs, calories, and fats mentioned on the packaged foods.

Weight loss depends on various factors like age, body type, medical condition, medical history, height, lifestyle, and genetics. Merely counting calories or net carbs may not give you the desired results.

As mentioned before, most low-cal and low-carb processed foods contain additives and high amount of trans fats and saturated fats that are dangerous in the long run. Here’s how you can lose weight and create a healthy carb balance:

  1. Avoid consuming packaged foods, prepared frozen foods, deep fried foods, energy drinks, diet soda, and packaged fruit and vegetable juices.
  2. Consume whole food sources of carbohydrates like fruits, veggies, nuts, and whole grains.
  3. Make energy bars at home using whole foods.
  4. Consume freshly pressed fruit and vegetable juices, and, when possible, homemade buttermilk, condiments, and salad dressings.
  5. Drink or have a small amount of protein 15-30 minutes post exercise.
  6. Workout regularly.
  7. Sleep for at least 6-7 hours.
  8. De-stress regularly.

To conclude, net carbs might be helpful when you are following an advanced and specialized diet – like the Ketogenic diet – if you fall under a certain BMI range and suffer from metabolic syndrome. But if you are overweight and can lose weight by consuming whole foods and exercising regularly, avoid obsessing over carbs and calorie counts. Focus on eating healthy and staying active, and you will see great results in three weeks’ time. Take care!

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  1. Low-Carbohydrate” Food Facts and Fallacies.” American Diabetes Association.
  2. Sugar Alcohols”American Diabetes Association.
  3. Guidance, Law & Regulations” FDA.
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Charushila Biswas

Charushila Biswas is a Senior Content Writer and an ISSA Certified Specialist in Fitness & Nutrition. She is an alumni of VIT University, Vellore and has worked on transgenic wheat as a part of her Masters dissertation from NRCPB (IARI), New Delhi. After completing her Masters, she developed a passion for nutrition and fitness, which are closely related to human psychology. This prompted her to author a review article in 2015. She has written over 200 articles on Fitness and Nutrition. In her leisure time, Charushila loves to cook and enjoys mobile photography.