Net Carbs. Sugar Alcohols. Sucralose. OH MY!
Seriously, what do all of these nutritional label terms mean when it comes to reading the label on a food product in question for keto? Ever wonder if it’s a foreign language class you somehow missed out on in school? We’re here to help make sense of some of the confusion surrounding what’s important (and what’s not) when you’re deciphering nutrition labels.
While the serving size is pretty straightforward, it can often be overlooked. Sure, you picked up a snack that only has one carb per serving (yay!), but what exactly is the serving? If you come across a bag that has a small consumption size or lots of servings per bag, proceed with caution – especially if you have the tendency to mindlessly snack. You could quickly max out your allotted carbs for the day and kick yourself right out of ketosis with that second handful.
As opposed to what you’ve probably been told to believe, calories don’t matter. Just kidding, though it’s kind of true for keto. The number of calories (so long as it’s not something astronomical) won’t play much into the endgame of keto. So, bye-bye, 100-calorie packs!
Given keto focuses on high-fat, low-carb, you’ll be fine with really any foods with medium- to high-fat contents. That said, you’ll still want to look out for trans fats unless you’re finding them in grass-fed animal or dairy products. Otherwise, they could be harmful to you no matter what diet you’re following.
Additional reading: Is fat bad for you? Read why it’s essential for keto.
The consumption of red meat, cheese, eggs, butter, and of course, bacon, will have the cholesterol numbers jumping out at you on nutrition labels. Never fear! Cholesterol is misunderstood and can actually be a good thing. In fact, 75% of the cholesterol in your body is made by your liver and your diet has little effect on cholesterol levels. So don’t fret over the cholesterol count as it’s bound to be higher on your favorite keto foods.
Additional reading: The facts of how keto affects cholesterol.
While other diets may steer clear of sodium, it’s important on keto as it’s a source of electrolytes, which can help alleviate the keto flu should you come to experience it. You should aim for about 3-5g per day and add some salt to meals when you can. You could even consider carrying around a salt grinder or salt packets to add sodium on the go!
Total carbs are arguably the most important part of the label to pay attention to. In general, most keto eaters keep their carb count below 20-40g each day. There are two methods of counting carbs: total and net. Counting using the total is pretty self-explanatory where the total number at the top is what you get. For net carbs, you subtract the dietary fiber count and sugar alcohols (if any) from the total carbs to give you the net carbs of the food in question. Regardless of total carbs and net carbs, you’ll always want to keep your sugar intake as low as possible.
Since protein isn’t really the focus of keto, you’ll want to keep your intake to a moderate amount, or simply keep it in line with your macros. If you’re not sure what your macros should be, some of these apps that we love have built-in macros calculators and make the keto diet even more manageable!
Additional reading: How protein can become too much of a good thing.
Time for the bonus round! Near the bottom of the nutrition label, you’ll see an assortment of vitamins and minerals that can be found in your food. Typically, these are Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. If you see products that list out magnesium, Vitamin D, or potassium, pick ’em up since they help boost the nutritional value of keto and can reduce the symptoms of the keto flu.
Daily Value Percent
Now, for all those percentages in the side column. The assumed daily percentage breakdown is based on the diet guidelines listed in the footer, NOT in your own macros. The diet they’re based on isn’t anything close to the concept of keto at all, so ignore those numbers entirely and stick to your own macros instead.
Anything that says sugar, honey, or syrup should be a red flag, though artificial sweeteners can sneak into your favorite products without you even knowing it. You should try to avoid or limit sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, neotame, saccharin, or advantame. Instead, opt for natural alternative sweeteners like stevia, monk fruit, Erythritol, or Xylitol — here’s a full list of our favorites!
You’ll also want to look out for starchy fillers by avoiding the basics like corn, flour, oats, potato, quinoa, rice, soy, and wheat. Same as with sugar, starches can work their way into foods under other names, so also avoid ingredients like barley, bran, cornmeal, cornstarch, farro, millet, sorghum, and others.
When all else fails, stick to whole foods like low-carb vegetables, keto cuts of meat, or any of our tasty keto recipes!
Up Next: The numbers don’t lie! Here’s why you can’t cheat on the keto diet.