KANSAS CITY – The term net carbs has become a versatile promotional tool, a claim that may appeal to consumers seeking keto-friendly products and consumers just wanting to reduce their carbohydrate intake. Diabetics and other consumers watching their blood sugar are potential customers, too. Food companies may take advantage of the trend by using certain ingredients, notably fiber and sweeteners, that allow them to reduce the number of net carbs in their products.

No federal definition exists for net carbs.

“Net carbs are the total amount of digestible carbohydrates in a food product or meal,” said Lindsey Morgan, senior director of product marketing, in giving out the definition used by Ardent Mills, Denver. “We calculate net carbs as total digestible carbohydrates minus total dietary fibers. The key difference between total carbs and net carbs is that total carbs include all the different types of carb in a food or meal. Net carbs, on the other hand, only include carbs that the body can fully digest into glucose for energy.”

Brook Carson, vice president of research and development at Manildra Group USA, Leawood, Kan., said, “Net carbs are the carbohydrates in food that you can digest and use for energy.”

Connecting with keto

The keto diet originated as a way to treat epilepsy. No mention of net carbs was made back then, but many promotions for “keto-friendly” products mention net carbs today. 

“Different versions of the keto diet have been around since as early as 500 BC, when it was recorded in the Hippocratic Collection to help treat epilepsy,” said Tanya Jeradechachai, vice president of ingredient solutions R&D for MGP Ingredients, Atchison, Kan. “The rise of the ketogenic diet and keto-friendly products is not due to medical use but as a tool to achieve weight loss goals. In social media conversations, weight loss is the top health issue and drives the demand for these products. Consumers also associate keto-friendly products as a healthier option, and some are simply experimenting with a new diet trend or use low net carb products to help manage blood insulin and glucose levels.”

Allied Market Research, Portland, Ore., said the global ketogenic diet food industry generated $8.4 billion in 2021 and estimated the market to reach $14.5 billion by 2031 through a compound annual growth rate of 5.9%. North America accounted for over 40% of the global ketogenic diet food market in 2021. Within the keto market, Allied Market Research projects the snacks segment will have the greatest CAGR at 7.8%.

When creating sweet baked foods like cakes and cookies with lower net carbs, formulators must consider altering two components –  flour and sugar.

SweetenersWhen creating sweet baked foods like cakes and cookies with lower net carbs, formulators must consider altering two components   flour and sugar.

International Food Information Council’s 2022 Food and Health survey found 7% of respondents said they followed a keto or high-fat diet in the past year, which tied with flexitarian, carb-cycling and intuitive eating. Low-carb diet was at 6%.

Net carb claims may appeal to more consumers than just those on keto diets.

“It’s not specifically to keto dieters,” said Lin Carson, PhD, founder and chief executive officer of Bakerpedia, Lake Oswego, Ore. “I don’t know of anyone who is really a diehard keto dieter.”

Keto-friendly products appeal to consumers looking to cut down on their carbohydrate intake, she said.

“That is where the market is headed to,” Dr. Carson said. “This is why net carbs is so important, not just for the keto diet but all dieters in general.”

Keto indicates to consumers that a product is low in sugar or has zero sugar.

“A lot of people that are diabetic or pre-diabetic are actually also looking at keto products and low net carbs,” Dr. Carson said.

Ardent Mills has become active in the category.

“As consumer health and dietary trends continue to diversify, specialty diets like keto friendly and low net-carb have become more mainstream and evolved from fads to industry disruptors,” said Matthew Schueller, director of marketing insight and analytics for Ardent Mills. “Our portfolio of keto-friendly grain blend offerings caters to such dietary niches while delivering functional and nutritional value. Moreover, our keto-certified flour blends are wheat-derived and designed to work on existing equipment and processes for ease of production, enabling manufacturers to innovate more easily to meet consumer demand.”

The keto-certified claim came from the Paleo Foundation, which was founded in 2010 as a way to make it easier for consumers who had to follow the paleo diet. Besides pale certification, the foundation also offers keto certification and grain-free certification.

A keto diet may have more defined nutritional targets than other low-carb diets, said Ms. Carson of Manildra. 

“The crossover is sometimes assumed, and the lines are blurring,” she said. “Keto-friendly does call for low carb but also suggests higher amounts of healthy fats.”

When creating low-carb/keto-friendly products, food companies first should determine their nutritional targets and then decide if that target allows room for flour or sweeteners, Ms. Carson said.

“The primary focus when lowering net carbs in bread is to build the structure needed for processing and for finished product characteristics,” she said. “Using wheat-based ingredients allows for a closer match to your conventional bread products. For example, using FiberGem RS4 type resistant wheat starch allows you to meet the body and textural requirements of flour. Wheat proteins allow you to build a structure and the rheology that is needed to make bread. Our goal is to help customers develop low carb formulas that can run on today's wholesale bakery lines.”

Ardent Mills’ proprietary keto-certified flour blends are non-GMO, dairy-free, vegan and have no added sugar, Ms. Morgan said.

“The magic of our formulation is that we kept it grain-based, which delivers nutritional and operational advantages,” she said.

Dough must remain viscoelastic, meaning having both viscous and elastic properties, in pizza crust with lower net carbs.

22Dec27_FIS_ArdentMills_Pizza.jpgDough must remain viscoelastic, meaning having both viscous and elastic properties, in pizza crust with lower net carbs. Source: Ardent Mills

Ken Ruud, director of innovation for Ardent Mills, added, “The problem with a lot of lower net carbohydrate products comes down to trapping leavening gases, whether that be a product of fermentation or chemical leavening (like baking soda). The net carb and keto-friendly flour blends developed at Ardent Mills work like conventional wheat flour and can make a viscoelastic dough: perfect for achieving a light and airy dough in pizza, flatbreads, and beyond.”

Viscoelastic means having both viscous and elastic properties. Ardent Mills developed a keto-friendly pizza mix for foodservice and pizza chain operators. While lower in net carbs, the mix is not gluten-free, which allows for a more familiar tasting pizza experience, Mr. Ruud said.

The approach to pizza crust and flatbreads would be similar to bread, Ms. Carson of Manildra said. However, more emphasis is needed on extensibility rather than volume when considering dough rheology.

Reasons to add fiber

“Fiber is a great solution to lower net carbs,” Ms. Carson said. “Because fiber is not digested, you can subtract dietary fiber from total carbohydrates. Additionally, it is also beneficial to displace carbohydrates with fat and protein. Adding healthy fats and proteins reduces the overall concentration of carbohydrates, making it easier to reach low net carbs with added fiber.”

Dr. Carson of Bakerpedia said fiber reduces the glycemic index in a food product.

“Fiber actually holds on to the sugar more and releases it slowly,” she said. “It’s really great for diabetes because it lowers the impact of the product on your blood glucose level.”

Resistant starch, which meets the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of fiber, and wheat protein isolate are two other ingredients that work well in products with lower net carbs, she said.

“Resistant wheat starch type 4 is effective and commonly used in lowering net carbs in foods because it contains a minimum of 90% dietary fiber while functioning similarly to native wheat starch or wheat flour, which is the gold standard for baking,” Ms. Jeradechachai of MGP Ingredients, said. “Seeds and nuts, such as flax and almonds, are also commonly used to lower net carb counts. The standard formulation strategy for low-net carb products is to make analog wheat flour by combining resistant wheat starch type 4 (RS4) with wheat protein isolates. MGP Ingredients offers Fibersym, an RS4 resistant wheat starch and rich source of dietary fiber, and several wheat protein isolates in the Arise line as keto ingredient solutions.”

Dr. Carson recommended inulin, which also meets the FDA’s definition of fiber, for use in products with lower net carbs.

“I feel like really the essential product right now is inulin,” she said. “There seems to be no substitute for it right now as far as our research has gone.”

When sugar is removed from an application like a baked food, yeast has nothing to ferment on. Inulin will solve this issue, she said.

“(Yeast) takes the natural-occurring carbohydrates, monosaccharides found in inulin, and it feeds off there for its fermentation,” Dr. Carson said. 

Ms. Carson of Manildra said whereas replacing flour in bread is the primary target, reducing carbohydrates in sweet goods can be more difficult.

“You need to replace the carbohydrates found in flour, which provides important structure, but also replace the carbohydrates found in sweetness, which provides both function and sweetness,” she said. “You could use a similar approach to displace a portion of the carbohydrates with fat and protein and also add fiber. One of the biggest challenges in creating low-carb sweet goods is maintaining a smooth texture. By selecting the correct protein and fiber combination you can optimize both the protein structure and softness of your sweet goods.”

Formulators must consider altering two components — sugar and flour — when creating sweet baked foods like cakes and cookies with lower net carbs, Ms. Jeradechachai said. 

“Sugar has several functionalities beyond sweetness,” she said. “The common strategy is to combine different ingredients along with alternative sweeteners to recreate the texture, structure, color and flavor that sugar provides. Using too much protein and fiber in the flour component can lead to a heavy and dense texture, which is undesirable for cakes and cookies. Resistant wheat starch type 4 is commonly used to help reduce bulking and create a light texture in these products.”