Ingredients to avoid on a low-carb or keto diet

Ingredients to avoid on a low-carb or keto diet

If you can keep high-carb and potentially unhealthy ingredients out of your cart, you set yourself up for low-carb or keto success.

Avoid these four key ingredients when buying packaged goods: sugar, starch, unhealthy fats, and sugar replacements.

Print this list and bring it with you to the market.

 

 

1. Avoid sugar

Sugar ingredients

Why are there so many names for sugar? This is one of the games that food companies play. If food manufacturers call sugar something else, you will be less likely to recognize it and more likely to buy.

Some food manufacturers will even use a couple of different kinds of sugar in a product so it will have less of each kind. That way, they can list the sugary ingredients farther down on the ingredient list, so buyers won’t know how much sugar is in there. Tricky, right?

What might sugar be called in the ingredient list on packaged foods?

Sounds like sugar—
Barbados sugar
Beet sugar
Brown sugar
Cane sugar
Castor sugar
Coconut sugar
Coconut palm sugar
Confectioner’s sugar
Corn Sugar
Date sugar
Demerara sugar
Golden sugar
Granulated sugar
Grape sugar
Icing sugar
Invert sugar
Muscovado sugar
Palm Sugar
Powdered sugar
Raw sugar
Turbinado sugar
Yellow sugar
 
Sounds like syrup—
Brown rice syrup
Buttered syrup
Carob syrup
Corn syrup
Corn syrup solids
Golden syrup
High fructose corn syrup
High maltose corn syrup
Malt syrup
Refiner’s syrup
Rice syrup
Sorghum syrup
 
Sounds cryptic—
Barley malt
Cane juice
Cane juice crystals
Caramel
Dehydrated cane juice
Evaporated cane juice
Diastatic malt
Florida crystals
HFCS
Malt
Muscovado
Panocha
Rapadura
Scant
Treacle
 

Sometimes special sugars (other than sucrose) are listed by their scientific name. And sometimes sugar finds it way into your food as a natural ingredient, like maple syrup. So watch for these possibilities, too:

Sounds like a chemical—
Dextran
Dextrose
Diatase
Disaccharides
Ethyl maltol
Fructooligosaccharides
Fructose
Galactose
Glucitol
Glucose
Glucose solids
Isoglucose
Lactose
Levulose
Maltodextrin
Maltose
Saccharose
 
Sounds natural—
Agave nectar
Blackstrap molasses
Coconut nectar
Dates
Dried Fruit
Fruit juice
Fruit juice concentrate
Honey
Maple syrup
Molasses
 
Whatever the name, sugar is sugar, so avoid all forms. If you miss a hidden sugar on the ingredient list, the carbohydrate count on the nutrition facts label boils carbohydrate content down to one number! More on that in our guide about several ways to use the nutrition facts label.
 

2. Avoid starch

Organic Whole Grains

When eating low-carb, avoiding refined starch is key. Wheat and corn are the biggest sources of starch in our food supply, so keep your eye out for those two primary offenders. But to avoid starch, you really need to stay away from all grains and almost all kinds of flour, with the exception of nut flours. And you need to avoid starchy vegetables like beans and tubers, too.

So watch for ingredients like these and keep products made with them out of your cart:

Grains & grain-like seeds—
Amaranth
Barley
Buckwheat
Corn
Oats
Millet
Rice
Rye
Quinoa
Sorghum
Teff
Wheat
Wild Rice
 
Other names for wheat—
Bulgar
Bran
Burghul
Couscous
Durum
Einkorn
Emmer
Farina
Farro
Flour
Graham flour
Kamut
Orzo
Semolina
Spelt
Triticale
Wheat berries
White flour
 
Flours, starches, & thickeners—
Arrowroot
Cornmeal
Cornstarch
Cassava
Chickpea flour or Gram
Cottonseed
Dal
Fava bean
Inulin
Lentil
Manioc
Modified starch
Powdered cellulose
Potato
Sago
Taro
Soy
Tapioca
Plantain or Banana
Mesquite
Starchy vegetables
Sweet potatoes & yams
Vegetable starch
 

Worried about baking without grains? Fear not. Low-carb baking is still possible with ingredients like almond flour, coconut flour, and psyllium husk powder. Check out our guide low-carb baking 101, to learn more.

For help finding low-carb nut flours and other specialty items, check out our guide on how to shop for low-carb extras online.

You might want to check out our low-carb bread recipes, too.


 

3. Avoid unhealthy fats

checking for bad fats

All fats are not created equal. Reviewing the ingredient list on products at the supermarket — before you buy — can help you eat more healthy, naturally-occurring fat and avoid or limit less-healthy oils.

We encourage you to completely avoid artificially produced trans fats, usually listed as “partially hydrogenated” oil or vegetable shortening. These fats are banned in Europe and are in the process of being eliminated from the US food supply due to concerns about their health effects.1

In addition, we suggest you minimize margarine and the highly-processed vegetable oils listed below. Unlike olive oil, coconut oil, and nut oils that are pressed and minimally processed, most vegetable oils are produced with high heat, solvents, deodorizers, and bleach.2 These oils are high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are less stable when heated.3 Finally, there are concerns that consuming foods very high in omega-6 fatty acids is at odds with our evolutionary diet, potentially leading to negative health effects (though this is controversial).4

Although there isn’t convincing data to show industrial seed oils are detrimental to our health, the evolutionary and mechanistic concerns are enough for us to recommend mostly sticking to the less processed, more natural oils and fats.

Read more in our guide — Vegetable oils: are they healthy?

Trans fats: avoid
Diglycerides
Hydrogenated anything
Interesterified oils
Margarine
Monoglycerides
Partially hydrogenated anything
Shortening
Vegetable shortening (like Crisco)
 
Highly processed vegetable oils: minimize
Canola
Corn
Cottonseed
Grapeseed
Rice bran
Safflower
Soybean
 
Unfortunately, refined vegetable oils are in so many products, you may struggle to find certain items (like salad dressing) that do not contain them. For homemade versions of sauces of all sorts, check out our sauces and dressings recipes— they’re really easy and delicious.

Note that for avoiding trans fat, the ingredient list is a better guide than the nutrition facts label. Artificial trans fats may be present in small amounts, up to 0.49 grams per serving, and the nutrition facts label will still show 0 grams trans fat. Small amounts can add up, especially when serving sizes are small, so check the ingredients before assuming a product is trans fat free.

And you probably don’t need to worry about the small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats in some whole foods like meat and butter.5 It is the artificial trans fats that we need to avoid.

Read more about fats in our guide — Healthy fats on a keto or low-carb diet. And while you are at it, why not check out our guide to eating more of the right kinds of fat — The top 10 ways to eat more fat.
 
 


4. Avoid sugar replacements

Sweetener

There are three types of very low calorie sugar replacements that you might find in packaged foods: sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners, and natural sweeteners. There are pros and cons to each of these additives. We recommend that you minimize or avoid them; for more on why, check out our guide, Low-carb sweeteners: the best and the worst.

Here are the names of sugar replacements you might see on an ingredient list:

Sugar alcohols—
Erythritol
Glycerol
Isomalt
Lactitol
Maltitol
Mannitol
Sorbitol
Xylitol
 
Artificial sweetners—
Acesulfame K
Alitame (Aclame)
Aspartame (NutraSweet)
Cyclamate (Sucaryl)
Neotame
Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low)
Sucralose (Splenda)
 
Natural extracts—
Stevia
Monk Fruit (Luo Han Gul)
 

Want more information about the differences among these sugar replacements? Then check out this detailed listing with helpful information on dozens of products.

 
That’s it! Now you have better awareness of the names of ingredients that don’t fit your low-carb lifestyle. Print this list and take it along so you can hit the grocery aisles with resolve and confidence!

 

More

There are two companion guides with more information about navigating the grocery store and deciphering food labels. They are:

Keto diet foods — top three mistakes at the grocery store
How to use the nutrition facts label

 
In addition, click through to our main keto foods guide, or our keto diet food list for real-food inspired grocery shopping!

For more basics, check out our simple but thorough beginner’s guide to the keto diet:

Ketogenic Diets for Beginners

 

About the author

Jenni Calihan created the non-profit, Eat the Butter, to start a mother-to-mother conversation about diet and health. She advocates for real-food-more-fat eating, and has been feeding her family (four kids) for twenty years.

Practical low-carb guides

 

Comments

  1. Trans fats have been shown to raise LDL cholesterol, lower HDL cholesterol, and increase inflammatory markers:

    The New England Journal of Medicine 1990: Effect of dietary trans fatty acids on high-density and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels in healthy subjects [randomized trial; moderate evidence]

    Lipids 2010: Effects of partially hydrogenated, semi-saturated, and high oleate vegetable oils on inflammatory markers and lipids [randomized trial; moderate evidence]

  2. Chemical Engineering Transactions 2017: Recovery of vegetable oil from spent bleaching earth: state of-the-art and prospect for process intensification [overview article; ungraded]

  3. Heating polyunsaturated fats to high temperatures makes them more likely to react with oxygen, leading to the formation of potentially harmful byproducts:

    Food and Nutrition Research 2011: Determination of lipid oxidation products in vegetable oils and marine omega-3 supplements [mechanistic study; ungraded]

    Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society 2002: Formation of 4-hydroxynonenal, a toxic aldehyde, in soybean oil at frying temperature [mechanistic study; ungraded]

  4. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2005: Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century [overview article; ungraded]

  5. Although most of the data is from lower-quality studies and results from human trials have been mixed, natural trans fats don’t seem to raise risk factors for heart disease or other health problems:

    Advances in Nutrition 2011: Effects of ruminant trans fatty acids on cardiovascular disease and cancer: a comprehensive review of epidemiological, clinical, and mechanistic studies [very weak evidence]

29 comments

  1. Dorte
    You’d be surprised to find that neither beef, pork or poultry sold at the supermarkets is what you call “Real Food” Industry still manages to add through injection chemicals like sodium phosphates, dextrose, sugars, carrageenan, etc. I worked for 25+ years in the industry and know what’s adeed.
  2. Joaney Malone
    I'M TRYING TO FIND A FREE CHART I CAN PRINT OUT OF ALL THIS INFO ABOUT LABELS INGREDIENTS. DO YOU KNOW WHERE I CAN GET THEM TO HELP MY START MY DIET?

    THANK YOU

  3. Rayma
    Joaney, almost at the end of the article in blue. “Print this list.” It will open a different page with everything in list form.
  4. Amanda
    My keto pills and elegant cleanse diet and elegant garcinia diet pills came in today. The instructions say to take 2 a day, so I take 2 of each all at once every day, or is that over- doing it?
    Reply: #5
  5. Kristin Parker Team Diet Doctor
    Neither of those are necessary or recommended. Keto/lchf is all about restoring health through eating whole foods with good ingredients.
  6. Paula
    What about onion and garlic, used as flavorings? Do I need to avoid them?
    Reply: #7
  7. Kristin Parker Team Diet Doctor
    No, they are frequent additions to keto recipes!
  8. Antonio
    Why are you listing stevia as something to avoid? As for oils, what do you recommend to cook with other than coconut oil?
  9. Kristin Parker Team Diet Doctor
    We included a link where you can read more about our recommendation on stevia.
    https://www.dietdoctor.com/low-carb/sweeteners

    And also one about the fats to use! Check out point 3.
    https://www.dietdoctor.com/low-carb/how-to-eat-more-fat

  10. Gillian
    Time to recognise home fermented foods and beverages. Homemade milk kefir; % of lactose after fermentation 99% reduction. Please assist those who find these whole food fermenters to work them into their keto way of eating. TIA
  11. Ingrid
    We just purchased a quarter cow from a grass fed beef ranch. Since I know the owners, I know I'm getting fresh.
  12. valorie
    Is it safe to use a little corn extract?
    Reply: #13
  13. Kristin Parker Team Diet Doctor

    Is it safe to use a little corn extract?

    It depends on the other ingredients, but flavor extracts in general are safe for keto.

  14. Ásgerður
    Is it safe to drink almond milk?
    Reply: #15
  15. Kristin Parker Team Diet Doctor

    Is it safe to drink almond milk?

    Generally yes, as long as it's unsweetened. Make sure to read ingredient labels to make sure there aren't any undesirable ingredients.

  16. Alexis
    I am having a difficult time here in Ireland and trying to stay on keto however the nutritional labels seems very deceiving they are showing peanuts as having more fibre than carbs and I have asked for advice on reading the label but I do not understand
    Reply: #17
  17. Kristin Parker Team Diet Doctor

    I am having a difficult time here in Ireland and trying to stay on keto however the nutritional labels seems very deceiving they are showing peanuts as having more fibre than carbs and I have asked for advice on reading the label but I do not understand

    In Ireland, the fiber is showed separately from the carbs. Just go with what is on the carbohydrate line as we would subtract the fiber out anyway.

  18. Ade
    Is sucralose safe to keto? Because I used to drink the famous energy drink call “bang” ..... and I see this ingredient... also zero coke has it as well
    Reply: #19
  19. Kristin Parker Team Diet Doctor

    Is sucralose safe to keto? Because I used to drink the famous energy drink call “bang” ..... and I see this ingredient... also zero coke has it as well

    Sucralose is an artificial sweetener that we recommend avoiding. It is listed in the Sweeteners section above, which also has a link to our full guide on sweeteners.

  20. Lisa
    I have severe asthma and all artificial sweeteners bother me as well as Stevia. Do you know of an alternative sweetener I could use?
  21. Bean Hall
    Lisa have you tried monk fruit?
  22. 1 comment removed
  23. Jojo C
    How about Tapioca “fiber”, I’m having a hard time finding EB research on this. Any clues?
  24. orenda jones
    its so hard to find food that has no sugar in it.. I havent seen anything less then 2g..
    help if anyone has any advice .. i mean how much sugar are we allowed to have?
    Reply: #25
  25. Kristin Parker Team Diet Doctor

    its so hard to find food that has no sugar in it.. I havent seen anything less then 2g..
    help if anyone has any advice .. i mean how much sugar are we allowed to have?

    If there is not sugar as an ingredient on the label and those are naturally occurring sugars, then just keep an eye on the carb count.
    https://www.dietdoctor.com/low-carb/how-low-carb-is-low-carb

  26. Bonnie
    So many good questions!
    I just want to clarify it totally to myself.. so if I buy a natural Greek yoghurt or sour cream or protein powder etc. and it has a very small amount of sugar per serving and no artificial sweeteners mentioned in the ingredients list, this is ok to eat? As long as the carbs are not exceeding my daily intake?? Thank you!
  27. Dee
    The vitamins that I am considering has cellulose. Is that ok for Keto?
  28. Susy
    I check the nutritional facts chart for plain (no sugar or artificial sweeteners added) carob syrup and it seems ok for low carb diet, with moderation of course, it's natural and taste delicious, why then is on your "not to eat" list? also, what are your recommendations on yacon syrup?
    Reply: #29
  29. Kristin Parker Team Diet Doctor

    I check the nutritional facts chart for plain (no sugar or artificial sweeteners added) carob syrup and it seems ok for low carb diet, with moderation of course, it's natural and taste delicious, why then is on your "not to eat" list? also, what are your recommendations on yacon syrup?

    You can see our full sweetener guide here.
    https://www.dietdoctor.com/low-carb/keto/sweeteners

  30. Eden
    How about the amaranth leaves, A. dubius?

Leave a reply

Reply to comment #0 by