How to Read Food Labels for Keto-Friendly Ingredients

When you’re grocery shopping, it’s extremely important to check your food labels for any ingredients that may not be keto-friendly. Some of the easiest ingredients that try to sneak their way into foods are sugars and carbs.

Effects of Sugar

As a former hardcore sugar addict who has to work hard to keep my sweet tooth under control, this topic is incredibly close to my heart. In fact, one of the biggest reasons people struggle to get and stay in ketosis to lose weight and achieve whole body health is because of sugar.

You can cut carbs super low, load up on healthy fats, get the right amount of protein, but if you’re still eating sugar, you will always struggle with body fat and lack of energy.

Sugar has caused a rise in Metabolic Syndrome (a cluster of conditions – increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels – that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes) in both adults and kids.

Sugar is added to just about EVERY processed food item these days, and smart food manufacturers mask the name to make it sound healthier.

Sugar is sugar – no matter how healthy the sweetener is, it will always impair your weight loss and potentially kick you out of ketosis.

Fresh Fruit Juices

Although fresh fruit juices should be avoided on very low-carb diets, you can still consume certain berries as long as they fit your daily carb limit.

Not all berries are the same.

While blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries have the least amount of net carbs (6-8g per cup), blueberries contain more than twice the amount of net carbs. 

Bananas need to be avoided altogether – they’ve got like 29 grams of sugar each!

Sweeteners & Sugar Alcohols

The quality of your carbohydrates matter, and so does the quality of your sweetener!

Sugar alcohols will be listed separately on food labels. There truly aren’t many good sugars, but there are some great sweeteners and some really awful ones.

Sugar alcohols (mostly with names ending in “tol,” such as Sorbitol, Maltitol, and Erythritol) are sweet substances which have a highly variable impact on blood glucose depending on which one.

Sugar alcohols must be included in “total carbohydrates” on the label, and if used in sugar-free foods, also have their own line on the label so you can see how much of the total carb count is from sugar alcohols.

When you look at the label of most sweeteners containing sugar alcohols, they claim to be “sugar-free” or “carbs-free”. These products often contain Sorbitol, Maltitol, and/or Splenda.

They use a simple rule:

Net Carbs (including sugar alcohols, polyols) = Total Carbs – Fiber

This is not exactly true, as sugar alcohols may affect blood sugar and contain calories, too. Sugar alcohols (polyols) are carbohydrates that the human body does not completely absorb.

The key word here is “not completely”.

Maltitol

Maltitol MAY affect blood sugar & cause GI issues – in fact – in MOST people, it does. So if you are looking at your label and you see total carbs at 10 grams, and you look at sugar alcohols, and that says 10 grams, THEN you look at the ingredients and it’s MALTITOL, instead of subtracting the full amount of Maltitol, you can only subtract half. 

This is because of Maltitol’s effect on blood sugar levels. So like in this case, the total carbs would be 5g net per serving.

Erythritol

Erythritol is naturally found in fruits, vegetables, and fermented foods. It is a sugar alcohol that does not affect blood glucose and has zero calories. 

Erythritol has a. GI of 0 and 0.2 calories per gram. It does not affect blood sugar and is suitable for a low-carb diet. Its sweetness is about a 1:1 ratio with sugar, so you’d use the same amounts of it as sugar in a recipe.

If you are looking at your label and you see total carbs at 10 grams and you look at sugar alcohols and that says 10 grams, then you look at the ingredients and it’s Erythritol, you would subtract the full amount of sugar alcohols from the total carbs. 

So like in this case, the total carbs would be 0g net per serving.

Stevia

The best sweetener by far is stevia. It’s just an herb with no other calories, vitamins, or nutrients. If you can, get the liquid stevia/drops, not powdered stevia products.

Beware of sweeteners, especially powdered stevia products, that may additionally contain artificial sweeteners, dextrose, maltodextrin (e.g. Stevia in the Raw) or even sugar.

Sweeteners with dextrose and maltodextrin are known to raise blood sugar. These may be the hidden carbs you are eating which may be the reason you can’t get into ketosis.

Also, Dextrose is usually made from GMO corn while Maltodextrin is made from rice and may contain monosodium glutamate (MSG) which is not required by law to be labeled.

Spices

Spices are not carb free. Garlic powder and onion powder have a LOT of carbs – more than 5 grams of carbs per tablespoon!

I personally avoid using those powders altogether and opt for the actual ingredient. One clove of garlic has 1 gram of carbs, and I feel like one garlic clove brings tons of flavor to a dish and in a much more natural way.

Certain spices like the powders I mentioned are highly processed and usually have some lactose in there to bulk them up. If you are sensitive to dairy, you may also be sensitive to powdered spices like garlic powder and onion powder.

This is actually a big benefit of tracking in MyFitnessPal – you can add in your ingredients, including spices, and see the nutrition totals.

Dextrose

This is another name for sugar and is usually made from corn, which is a big red flag because most corn is genetically modified and is a starch.

Dextrose is one of the most commonly used additives in packaged foods because it’s cheap and adds bulk, so food manufacturers can stretch their ingredients and save money, all while charging consumers more.

It is also used to sweeten processed foods like cakes, cookies and ice creams – none of which you are eating anyway.

Dextrose is a filler and texturizing agent in foods like sauces, cookies, cake mixes, frozen desserts, cured meats, canned foods, pretzels, pickles, and crackers. 

Dextrose is a sugar and can kick you out of ketosis!

Maltodextrin

Maltodextrin comes from natural foods but is highly processed. It is an artificially produced white powder produced from any starch, most commonly corn, potato, rice, and wheat – all of which should raise a red flag for you as you are not consuming starchy carbs.

It’s a polysaccharide, which is a type of carbohydrate.

Maltodextrin is usually used to thicken processed foods like pudding, jello, sauces and salad dressings, baking goods, nutrition bars (like Atkins bars, which lots of lazy keto peeps eat!), meal replacement shakes, jerky and other “low carb” ketogenic processed foods.

It’s frustrating because companies like Keto Bars who market to the low-carb high-fat community produce foods with maltodextrin, but this is NOT a keto-friendly food.

Splenda usually contains maltodextrin, too, because it adds bulk to the product.

Maltodextrin can spike blood sugar (which will kick you out of ketosis), suppresses the growth of healthy gut bacteria, can cause skin allergies, GI issues (notice major bloating after consuming Splenda?) and provides no nutritional value.

Carageenan

Carrageenan is a common food additive extracted from red seaweed, aka Irish moss, with zero nutritional value.

It is used as a thickener, emulsifier, and to improve the texture of things like nut, soy, and coconut milk. 

Carrageenan causes inflammation and when we consume processed foods containing carrageenan, we ingest enough to cause inflammation! This is a huge issue because not only can inflammation hinder weight loss, but chronic inflammation causes serious issues such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and certain cancers.

Look at the label on your almond milk now and make sure it doesn’t contain carrageenan (or sugar!).

Keto-Friendly Additives

There are some additives we use in ketogenic cooking that are okay:

  • Guar gum
  • Xanthan gum
  • Cream of tartar

Cream of tartar has slightly more carbs, but it’s inexpensive and easy to find, and you use a pinch here and there so there’s really no reason to be concerned.

Arrowroot powder and tapioca starch are decent, but in my opinion, they contain more carbs than they are worth.

Stick to the three I just mentioned and you’ll eat well without the carb creep.

How to Avoid These Altogether?

The best way to avoid hidden carbs and sugars is by eating whole, unprocessed foods!

Yes, it takes a little more time to make your own keto tortillas, breads, muffins and cakes, but you invest that time on food prep so that you can get more time on this earth, feeling, looking, and being your best!

Keto Diet Explained
About Lori Ballen Keto Coach
Lori Ballen, who shed 45 pounds herself in 4 months on the Ketogenic Diet, is a Keto Coach helping others like her get healthy, feel younger, and lose weight.

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