Seven Questionable Ingredients in Low-Carb Foods

Educating yourself on ingredient labels can be both empowering and disappointing . . . you learn that some manufacturers aren’t always honest in their advertisements, or they may be prioritizing cost over health and quality.

We’ve compiled a list of questionable ingredients in so-called “low-carb,” “keto,” or “diet” foods. This is to equip you with the knowledge to make informed decisions for your health or weight loss journey. Some of these ingredients may be the cause of your digestive discomfort. Others are not low carb at all . . . and some of them are just downright unhealthy.


1. Inulin or Chicory Root Fiber


You may have noticed this common ingredient in numerous low-carb and gluten-free foods popping up on supermarket shelves. While it is sometimes called chicory root fiber, we’ll just call it inulin in this article as it is one and the same. There are many reasons why food manufacturers are now turning to inulin. It can be used as a bulking agent, it brings in elasticity that would otherwise come from gluten, and it can be a replacement for sugar . . . bonus, it’s cheap.

Inulin isn’t necessarily toxic or harmful to health. It is extracted naturally from a plant. It’s even said to have some digestive health benefits since it is a soluble fiber and prebiotic fiber. As a result, it may help some people create a healthier gut biome, keep you feeling full, and help control blood sugar.

Nevertheless, there is a major reason why we’ve added it to our beware list and why it’s number one on this list! Inulin can cause severe gastric distress for many. You’ve heard that warning for many foods, but inulin should have special status… a gold medal for causing issues such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation and abdominal cramping. This is due to inulin being part of a short-chain carbohydrate group that is poorly absorbed in the body. When inulin is fermented by the bacteria in the intestine, it tends to produce excessive amounts of gas, which can lead to the symptoms described above.

While some people seem to have no problems with it at all, thousands of others wonder why after eating certain foods like “stevia-sweetened chocolate” or “sugar-free yogurt,” they are bent over in pain or clouding up a room with embarrassing odor. It is all thanks to inulin. Numerous health and diet food companies add it to their chocolate and protein bars, drinks, yogurts and all manner of snacks. Though many will choose to avoid the ingredient inulin, it is considered on-plan for those who can tolerate it. But if you are one of the many who it causes problems for, there are many other prebiotic foods and fibers that you can add into your diet to help your gut biome without the intense gas reaction.

(If you are in search of healthy sugar-free snacks or chocolate bars that do not contain inulin, our Protein Pleasure Cookies, Trim Healthy Protein Bars, and Trim Healthy Mama Chocolate Butterfly Bars are inulin-free.)


2. Tapioca Starch


Tapioca starch has become a popular ingredient for food companies because it is a neutral-tasting, gluten-free powder. It works as a grain-based alternative flour for those who follow the Paleo diet. Plus, tapioca is cheap, and it is a great binding agent.

Because tapioca is inexpensive and it appeals to those who are gluten-sensitive, this ingredient has been showing up in many low-carb products. There’s only one problem… there’s nothing low carb about it. It is almost entirely made up of starchy carbs.

Tapioca starch is a high glycemic index food. High glycemic index foods can cause quick spikes in insulin and blood sugar – thus, resulting in the likelihood of elevated insulin and weight gain. Of course, many companies get around this by adding fibers like inulin to lower the carb count.

Very small amounts of tapioca starch ingested here or there should not be too problematic but relying on products containing it too often is not wise if you’re wanting to protect your blood sugar.


3. Isomalto-oligosaccharide (IMO)


IMO became popular in 2010 when it was added to products like protein bars. It has a sweet taste and was believed to have a low-glycemic index and be a source of prebiotic fiber. This made it a favorable choice for sugar-free and low-carb products.

It was later discovered that this was not the case.

In 2018, the FDA published a guidance for manufacturers addressing acceptable dietary fibers. Although IMO had been petitioned to be on the list . . . it didn’t make the cut. IMO was not considered to be a true fiber. In 2019, two more petitions for IMO were submitted to the FDA for approval. The FDA denied them both again and made a statement saying, “The strength of the evidence does not show that the consumption of IMO has a physiological effect that is beneficial to human health.”

Aside from the FDA’s comment that IMO has no benefit, we take it further by saying that IMO may do harm. Similar to inulin, IMO can also cause digestive distress. But unlike inulin, it raises blood sugar. A 2017 study investigated what kind of effect IMO consumption would have on blood glucose, insulin response and breath hydrogen. They discovered that IMO consumption led to a rise of nearly 50 mg/dL in blood glucose, with a concomitant five-fold rise in insulin at 30 minutes and it did not increase breath hydrogen.

To break it down, IMO spikes blood sugar and should not be considered a dietary fiber.

Before the FDA ruled that IMO could not be listed as a fiber, manufacturers got away with mislabeling it and even hiding this ingredient under different names. Tapioca fiber was used as a common source for IMO, so IMO was sometimes labeled as “soluble tapioca fiber” in the list of ingredients.

At least for now, you won’t have to worry about IMO being disguised on food labels as a fiber, but IMO may still be used as an ingredient.

Since IMO has a high glycemic index and no nutritional benefit, we suggest checking labels and avoiding it except for a rare “personal choice” occasion when there aren’t better options available.


4. Dextrose (AKA, Glucose) & Maltodextrin



Labeling IMO under the name “Soluble Tapioca Fiber” isn’t the only sneaky business some manufacturers are up to . . .

Before we go on, we need to distinguish between the food ingredient called “glucose” (which is a sugar in either powder or liquid form) from the natural occurrence of the glucose (aka blood sugar) that your body makes from food and burns for fuel. In this discussion, we are talking about the ingredient glucose. You’re probably aware that glucose has a high glycemic index – so high, in fact, that its glycemic index per gram is 100! When you eat it, it causes your own blood sugar to spike… never a good thing. For this reason, some manufacturers will label glucose as “dextrose” in the ingredients list because they believe consumers will be less concerned with the word “dextrose” than “glucose” . . . even though the only difference between these two sugars is the name and foods they are derived from. Dextrose is the name given to glucose made from corn, but dextrose is chemically identical to glucose.

To put it mildly, dextrose is not low-carb or keto . . . quite the contrary. But this hasn’t stopped companies who cater to low-carb groups from using it.

Odds are that most dextrose also contains genetically modified organisms since it is made from one of the top three GMO crops in the US – corn.

GMO is a controversial health topic, and one that is still in need of more research. While there are some studies that show no harm from consuming GMOs, many scientists and researchers challenge these studies. Among them were a group of 300 independent scientists, physicians, and scholars who signed a journal in 2015 stating that there is “No scientific consensus on GMO safety.” The journal challenges the misleading claim that there is enough evidence that GMOs are safe. Furthermore, French researchers published a 2016 study determining that many published research articles on GMOs had a conflict of interest that was associated with a higher frequency of outcomes favorable to the crop company.

It goes without saying that if you want to avoid GMOs, you’ll want to avoid dextrose.



Maltodextrin is another common food additive. Manufacturers use it for its ability to thicken, improve texture, and act as a preservative. It is also sweet tasting. Like dextrose, it is usually made from corn and has a high glycemic index, so it is very unkind to your blood sugar.

There are other reasons why we put maltodextrin on the beware list. Studies show that maltodextrin could be a risk factor for chronic inflammatory diseases. Among them is a 2012 study which revealed how maltodextrin can alter your gut bacteria and put you at risk for diseases and autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease by increasing the growth of the bacteria E. coli.

Despite the fact that dextrose and maltodextrin are among the worst offenders for spiking your blood sugar, this hasn’t prevented low-calorie sweetener companies from adding them to their products. Beware of stevia brands that include it in their ingredient list. Just because a brand has the word “stevia” on the front of the package doesn’t mean it’s not hiding fillers such as dextrose or maltodextrin in the ingredients. Always check labels to make sure the stevia or stevia-sweetened product you are buying is pure with no high-glycemic or artificial fillers.

(Trim Healthy Mama offers minimally-processed, Pure Stevia Extract Powder that contains no added fillers.)


5. Vital Wheat Gluten


Gluten is a protein naturally found in certain grains. It serves as a binder that holds baked goods together and can improve their texture.

Vital wheat gluten is the isolated form of this gluten and it is quite common to find a small amount of it added as a binder in bread. This is especially true for store-bought sprouted bread since the gluten is naturally lowered during the sprouting process. In this case, you will usually see it listed toward the end of the ingredient list, showing it is used in only small amounts. While many people can handle vital wheat gluten in small amounts like this, if you know you’re sensitive, we don’t have to tell you to avoid any product that lists it at all. Even minute amounts can be problematic for those with auto-immune issues, and of course, it is highly dangerous for true celiacs.

Lately, vital wheat gluten is being added to a great many low-carb products because of its high-protein, low-carb, and binding qualities. You’ll often find it as one of the top ingredients to replace actual wheat flour in “keto breads.” In fact, many times, it is often the very first ingredient listed! While this may technically make it a low-carb bread, it gives it an extraordinarily high amount of gluten – much higher than what would be naturally found in whole grains.

Another product that is often unnaturally high in gluten is seitan, a vegan substitute for meat.

As humans we are all so unique, and we handle gluten in different ways. On the Trim Healthy Plan, we have never demonized it. Instead, for those of us who can tolerate it, we’ve always suggested eating breads made with ancient grains vs modern wheat flour and made in either of two ways. First and preferable… true artisan sourdough that has had a good (minimum 7-hour) ferment time can reduce a significant portion of the gluten. Second in sprouted form… which as we mentioned earlier, also lowers gluten content. We do not recommend typical breads, even if whole grain, not made with these methods because there is much evidence surrounding the idea that gluten can be inflammatory, and even contribute to leaky gut in non-celiac or even non-sensitive people.

A study observing the effect of gliadin (which is a protein in gluten) on intestinal biopsies, discovered that gliadin causes inflammation and leaky gut indicators in everyone – from celiac) to non-celiac gluten-sensitive, to normal controls. In simple terms – gluten was shown to cause damage on all of the intestines, whether someone had gluten issues or not.

Celiac disease isn’t the only autoimmune disease that gluten has been linked to. There may be much wisdom in avoiding or limiting gluten when you need to reduce overall excess inflammation. There is evidence that gluten’s inflammatory impact may contribute to rheumatoid arthritis and Type-2 diabetes in babies during pregnancy, so you may want to reduce gluten while pregnant. Additionally, it is suggested that a gluten-free diet may possibly prevent diabetes.

But there’s always another side to things. Cutting out gluten completely may come with its own set of risks. Whole grains can be part of a balanced diet that offers fiber and many essential nutrients, including minerals, B-vitamins, zinc, magnesium, and antioxidants. Some scientists even advocate that if you have no medical reason to be off gluten, or if you are not gluten-sensitive, you could be putting yourself at risk by going gluten-free since it could lead to deficiencies in nutrients. Many gluten-free products are made with high-starch ingredients that lack nutritional value. It would seem counterproductive to limit gluten for its inflammatory effects, only to replace it with other insulin-spiking products that can also raise inflammation.

So, we’re leaving it up to you and your unique body with how you feel you need to roll with gluten. But regardless of whether you can handle it or not, it makes no sense to put excessive amounts of it in your body… as is sure to occur when eating low-carb bread items that use vital wheat gluten as a chief ingredient.

Trim Healthy Mama offers truly gluten-free, No Carb Easy Bread (just add liquids and bake) that contains none of the “be aware” ingredients. You can also bake gluten-free and truly low-carb with our gluten-free Baking Blend Mix.


6. Artificial Sweeteners


Not all sugar substitutes are artificial. Some zero-calorie sweeteners are made naturally from plants, such as stevia, which comes from the leaves of the stevia plant. Non-caloric, artificial sweeteners (NAS), on the other hand, are chemically modified in a lab to mimic sugar, with the two most common being sucralose and aspartame.

NAS are meant to be the alternative solution to the sugar epidemic. Adversely, they can put you at risk for some of the very same reasons why people quit sugar in the first place.



Sucralose is one of the most popular zero-calorie sweeteners because it leaves no bitter aftertaste the way some other sugar substitutes do. The most common product containing sucralose is Splenda… although Splenda contains only a small amount of sucralose. The bulk of the ingredients are made with maltodextrin (similar to those sneaky “stevia” packets you can find at a lot of restaurants and grocery stores). It should be no surprise that Splenda has been found to worsen the symptoms of Crohn’s disease, considering its main ingredient is maltodextrin (and we’ve already covered what that does to our gut bacteria). However, sucralose may be just as much to blame for causing inflammation in the digestive tract.

One researcher suggests that sucralose may be the culprit for making Canada the country with the highest incidence of inflammatory bowel disease. His theory is that sucralose may alter the bacteria in the gut even more than saccharin does due to a high percentage of sucralose being excreted through the feces unchanged. Canada was the first country to approve the use of sucralose in 1991. Another study suggests that consuming sucralose for six months at the human acceptable daily intake may contribute to chronic inflammation by disrupting the gut bacteria.

On top of that, cooking or baking with sucralose at high temperatures may potentially release toxic chlorinated compounds, according to this study.



Learning problems, headaches, migraines, seizures, irritable moods, anxiety, depression, and insomnia are not all aspartame is linked to… the consequences of consuming aspartame could be far more serious.

Whether or not aspartame may be carcinogenic has been disputed for many years. According to some Italian researchers from the Ramazzini Institute, there is concerning evidence it is. Their findings suggest aspartame increased the risks of tumors in rodents, even when given low doses. What is more concerning, aspartame was shown to be carcinogenic to fetal rodents during pregnancy. These published results sparked much controversy, and doubts were raised over the accuracy of the researcher’s diagnoses. To address the naysayers, the RI re-evaluated the original diagnoses and confirmed once again that aspartame is a carcinogen in rodents. The FDA has not suggested any studies that have found a correlation between aspartame and cancer despite these findings … but it does make you wonder whether aspartame is really as safe as they say and that maybe the potential carcinogenic risks should be investigated further.

If the findings from the Ramazzini Institute don’t raise the alarm of using aspartame during pregnancy… consider this study from the Reproductive Toxicology Journal. The researchers suggest that certain sweeteners, particularly aspartame, during pregnancy may make babies susceptible to developing obesity and metabolic syndrome later in life.

Aspartame is a common sweetener for diet beverages. Numerous studies have linked diet soda consumption to serious health conditions, including metabolic syndrome, Type-2 diabetes (1), stroke and coronary heart disease. They all can cause mortality (2) and dementia (3).

(Note: Some alternatives to artificial sweeteners that are acceptable on the Trim Healthy Lifestyle include: stevia, monk fruit, allulose, erythritol (as we will soon read about), honey and coconut sugar (in moderation).


7. Sugar Alcohols


Some sugar alcohols are found naturally in plants, but most of them are manufactured in a lab. Most sugar alcohols are not zero-calorie, unlike artificial sweeteners. But they do have fewer calories than sugar and with the exception of a couple, most have fewer unhealthy side effects than both sugar and artificial sweeteners although some are infamous for causing gastric distress. They are not all equal in terms of calories and glycemic index. This is why some sugar alcohols may be fine while others should be avoided. 
Let’s start with one that we’ll term ”problematic”.



Maltitol may be one of the sweetest sugar alcohols – but it’s also the one with the highest glycemic index. Powdered maltitol has a glycemic index of 35, while maltitol syrup has a glycemic index of 52 (that’s not much better than table sugar). It also carries a profound laxative effect and can cause gastric distress. In our opinion, the high impact on blood sugar makes it just not worth the tummy trouble. It’s for these reasons that maltitol is not recommended on the Trim Healthy Lifestyle.

Now onto one that we’ll term… “not so bad.”



Although sorbitol can be naturally found in foods like berries, the sorbitol that is commercially used today is typically derived from glucose made from corn. Be warned – sorbitol can behave similarly to laxatives if used in large amounts. If you don’t need a laxative, consuming sorbitol could bring some pretty unpleasant side effects, such as bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. One good thing about sorbitol is that it has a relatively low glycemic index of 4 (compare that to table sugar, which has a glycemic index of 63), but it has only 60% of the sweetness of sugar, so you have to end up using more. If using products that contain sorbitol, we recommend going easy and not overdoing it to avoid stomach issues.

The next we’ll term… “kind of neat!”



The good news about xylitol is that it can offer protection for your teeth by reducing tooth decay and inhibiting harmful bacteria – this is why manufacturers often add it to chewing gum and toothpaste. Xylitol may also have positive effects on the microbiome by acting similarly to a prebiotic. While xylitol has a slightly higher glycemic index of 7 than sorbitol’s GI of 4, it is nearly as sweet as sugar, so you need less of it than sorbitol.

The cons – similarly to sorbitol, too much xylitol can cause digestive side effects (though it is generally more tolerated than sorbitol and maltitol). Another concern about xylitol is that, while it is safe for people, it is extremely toxic for dogs and causes hypoglycemia, which can be fatal for our canine friends.

We’ll term the last “the good one.”



Who wins the gold for having the lowest GI on our sugar alcohol list? Erythritol does at a minuscule glycemic index of 1! It also has zero calories. Even better yet . . . compared to the other sugar alcohols we mentioned . . . erythritol is far less notorious for causing gastric distress (excluding very sensitive people, or when consumed in excessive doses). This is largely because erythritol is absorbed in the small intestine and excreted through the urine (only a small amount is digested in the large intestine). What’s more, some studies suggest that erythritol may even be superior to xylitol when it comes to benefiting oral health!

One note of caution – erythritol is commonly made from fermented GMO glucose – you may want to check that the erythritol you are buying is made from a non-GMO source if you are avoiding GMO’s.

(Our Trim Healthy Mama Gentle Sweet Blend is made with non-GMO xylitol, non-GMO erythritol, and organic stevia. For those who are sensitive to xylitol, or are dog-owners, we also offer a Xylitol-Free Gentle Sweet.)