How to Check if a Food Label is Keto

Abigail Roaquin
Oct 10, 2017 · 7 min read

It’s your quintessential grocery shopping question:

Is this keto?

Seems like an easy question that’s supposed to have a simple answer.

But as you spend more time learning about this lifestyle, clarity’s becoming harder to come by isn’t it?

You’re confused. Do you count net carbs or total carbs? Do you subtract fiber, sugar alcohols, or both? Which ones?

You’re afraid. The experts don’t even agree. Who do you believe? Who’s right? You don’t want to sabotage your weight loss efforts by making the wrong food choices.

Back to basics

Fortunately for us, there’s an agreement in the fundamentals.

Keep carbs low. Your body will start to burn fat (and lose fat) when it runs out of sugar as a source of energy.

Where it gets confusing is when debates ensue as to:

a) How low you should go, and

b) which kinds of carbs to count for fat loss to happen.

That’s why you end up standing at the grocery store aisle holding a food item, staring at its food label, confused and wondering if you’re making the right choice.

The Whys

But clarity and confidence don’t come from opinion.

It comes from understanding the “whys”.

Once you understand the reasons for why they differ, you’ll be able to figure out which ones are right — for you.

To learn how to read food labels like a keto pro, we’ll also be going over the whys so you can be confident in making the right food choices every time.

1. Read the Ingredient List

Food manufacturers are required by the FDA to list ingredients in order of predominance by weight. The ingredient that weighs the most is listed first, and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last.

So stay away from foods where sugar or starch is listed as one of its first 5 ingredients. That’s too many carbs for fat loss.

But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Sugar has many different names, and you’ll need to be familiar with their most common aliases.

Bacon is a great example because it’s hard to find bacon that doesn’t have sugar listed as one of its first 5 ingredients. And because… bacon.

3 no-sugar bacon options

1. Look for a brand that indicates “No Sugar Added”. Read the ingredient list to verify. Pederson’s brand with the No Sugar-Whole30 Approved seal is my personal choice.

2. Go to the butcher. You can find him in the grocery store by the meat section or at your local butcher shop. Ask him to cut you strips of pork belly, bacon style. This is my favorite.

3. If you have no other choice but a brand that lists sugar, get one that has 0 gram of Total Carbohydrate per serving.

Why you want to stay away from sugar and starch

Insulin.

Because insulin is a fat-storing hormone.

Here’s the mantra:

When your insulin is high, you store fat for later use. So you gain fat.

When your insulin is low, you use fat for energy. So you lose fat.

Sugar and starch stimulate insulin the most. High amounts of insulin is secreted in response to high blood sugars.

2. Total Carbs or Net Carbs

How to calculate net carbs

Subtract Dietary Fiber and Sugar Alcohols (if any) from the Total Carbohydrate.

*Total Carbohydrate minus Dietary Fiber, minus Sugar Alcohol (if any) = Net Carbs

Total Carbohydrate (4 grams) — Dietary Fiber (1 gram) = 3 grams Net Carbs

The Total Carbs for ⅔ cup of this packaged cauliflower is 4 grams, and the Net Carb is 3 grams.

Why the 2 camps

The reason there’s an impassioned debate about whether to count Total Carbs or Net Carbs is because both camps are right.

I know. I can see the {collective eye roll} around the world. But hear me out.

Each side believes they’re right simply because it’s what’s worked for them. Which means they both work. Hence, the strong feelings.

The question then for you, isn’t:

Who is right?

The question you need to ask yourself is:

What’s right for me?

This is where our whys come in.

Why some people count net carbs

Again… insulin.

It all goes back to keeping your insulin levels low. Low enough that access to stored fat is granted so it can be used for energy to allow fat loss.

You know that increased blood sugars will raise insulin. But other factors can raise insulin, too (but that’s a whole other epic story).

For now, let’s focus on the fact that increased blood sugars will raise your insulin.

Given that your goal is to keep insulin low, here’s why counting net carbs work:

The effects of fiber and sugar alcohol (in this case, erythritol) have either little to no effect on insulin levels.

This is why the net carb folks don’t count them and they lose weight.

Why some people count total carbs

You guessed it… still insulin.

What will raise your insulin levels to a point that it results in blocked access to your stored fat and keep you from losing weight?

Since your goal is still to keep insulin low, here’s why counting total carbs work:

  • Sugar alcohols sorbitol, xylitol, and maltitol do raise blood sugar so it also raises insulin. They’re commonly used in products that have “low carb”, “sugar free”, or “net carb” labels.
  • Carbohydrate intolerance. People with metabolic issues like obesity, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 Diabetes can’t tolerate carbs like others do. So they have to count all carbs in order to lose weight — especially those “fibers” that don’t come from real, whole foods like “low carb” bars and treats.
  • The Cephalic Phase Insulin Response. The mere taste of sweet in your mouth can raise your insulin. Even if it doesn’t have any calories, even if it doesn’t raise your blood sugar, and even if you just swished it around your mouth and spit it out. Yes, it’s a thing.

The effects of metabolic issues, some sugar alcohols, and the taste of “sweet” can raise insulin levels.

This is why the total carb folks count fiber, sugar alcohols, or eliminate sugar alcohols from their diet to lose weight.

3. What’s the Serving Size

There’s no official definition on how many carbs a day a ketogenic diet is, but a vast majority lose weight around 20 grams per day (give or take).

This will vary depending on your activity level and your carbohydrate tolerance.

But let’s just say you’re trying to stay around 20 grams per day. How much cashews can you eat to stay around this daily limit?

If you eat the Serving Size of 1 oz of cashews (that’s 18 pieces says Google) you’d eat 8 grams of carbs, so you’re probably doing okay.

But if you eat the whole bag, you’d eat 256 grams and blow it.

32 Servings Per Container multiplied by 8 grams of Total Carbohydrate is 256 grams.

Why total or net carbs don’t paint the entire picture

Because they don’t tell you how many carbs are in the whole container.

Don’t just look at the carbs. Look for the serving size and how many serving sizes there are in the entire can, box, or package.

That’s how you know how much you can eat to stay within your carb budget.

Pick your camp

Here’s where the rubber meets the road.

Consider the facts. Then try a method or a variation that makes the most sense to you, and see what works. Tweak as needed until you find your sweet spot.

You have to do it to find out. There’s no way around it. The only way to find out is through.

Learning how to read food labels is an essential skill for fat loss, but the real skill comes from knowing why you ought to read it a certain way.

How low do you go?

  • Maybe you start at 20 grams per day, because you’re sedentary and have a long history of being overweight.

Which carbs do you count?

  • Maybe you don’t count fiber that comes from real, whole foods.
  • Maybe you eliminate sugar alcohols from your diet.
  • Maybe you’re okay with erythritol — but only on occasion.

For every friend, expert, or study that tells you one thing… you’ll likely find another that tells you the opposite with equal proof of claim.

Therein lies the confusion.

But it doesn’t matter what worked for your friend, it doesn’t matter what the experts say, and it doesn’t even matter what the studies show.

Because the only carbs that matter are what your body responds to in a positive way.

And the only definition of keto that matters is what your body understands.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Abigail Roaquin

Written by

Abby writes at http://mindfulketo.com: A mindful and habits approach to fat loss on a low carb-high fat, ketogenic lifestyle that works.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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