WASHINGTON - Food makers are jockeying for grocery shelf space in the low-carb craze, touting everything from salad dressing to ice cream to low-carbohydrate Easter chocolate.
Here's the catch: How companies count carbohydrates varies widely. While some significantly cut carbohydrates, others promoted as reduced-carb actually cut only a single gram per serving - yet cost more - and some simply leave ingredients out of their count.
Now the Food and Drug Administration is about to determine just how many carbohydrates are allowed for a food to advertise itself as low- or reduced-carb, and exactly how manufacturers should count them.
It's an effort to "demystify the current confusion about carbohydrates," says FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford, who predicts a substantial number of products will have to change their labels as a result.
As the FDA deliberates, nutritionists advise consumers to get savvy: Just because a product touts itself as low or reduced in carbohydrates doesn't necessarily mean it fits your diet.
Remember the low-fat craze of the early '90s, when cookies and other goodies were revised to contain fewer grams of fat? Low-fat didn't always mean low-calorie, and many people who swarmed back to foods they had avoided regained pounds.
"We're almost seeing the same trend," says Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, a nutrition specialist at Tufts University.
"Low-carb" or "reduced-carb" aren't allowed on food labels until the FDA defines those terms. The agency has ordered a few companies to quit using those terms.