Phantom Carbohydrates – A Nutrition Mystery

How can a drink contain carbs but no calories?  Find out how food companies can legally fudge the number of calories in their products.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
3-minute read
Episode #145

But the presence of sugar alcohols doesn’t completely explain how a drink can contain six grams of carbohydrates per serving and still have no calories. As I said, there’s also some deception involved.  Legal deception, that is.

When is a Calorie Not a Calorie?

When a food contains fewer than 5 calories per serving, the manufacturer is allowed to “round down” to 0 on the Nutrition Facts label

The truth is that despite what it says on the Nutrition Facts, this drink is not completely calorie free.  Like most soft drinks, it comes in a 20-ounce bottle. However, the information on the nutrition label is based on an 8 ounce serving. In other words, each bottle contains two and a half servings—so you can share it with one and half friends, maybe?

If you look on SoBe’s website, you’ll see that a 20-ounce bottle contains 10 calories. Obviously, if 20 ounces contains 10 calories, then eight ounces will contain four calories.  (And if that’s not clear, may I recommend The Math Dude’s terrific podcast?) And here’s where the perfectly legal deception comes in. When a food contains fewer than 5 calories per serving, the manufacturer is allowed to “round down” to 0 on the Nutrition Facts label.

Ten Calories Aren’t Worth Worrying About

Although this misrepresentation might be a little irritating, it’s really not that big a deal. Even if you drink the whole bottle yourself rather than enjoying it in two and half sittings, 10 calories is not a significant amount and probably not worth worrying about.

Of course, if you’re drinking 10 or 20 bottles a day, those phantom calories could start to add up. But you’d probably run into a different problem before you got to that point.  Consuming large amounts of sugar alcohols can cause a collection of uncomfortable symptoms delicately known as “digestive upset.”


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.