What It Really Means When A Food Is "Keto"

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
In 2018, "keto" was the top trending diet on Google, so it's no surprise that many health brands are now marketing packaged snacks with words like "keto friendly" or "keto" right on the label. From cheese chips to protein bars, keto products are seemingly everywhere, making it even harder for consumers to decipher labels. So, what does "keto" even mean and how can a food be defined as such? It's complicated.
"Ketosis" is a metabolic state that's achieved when the body is deprived of carbohydrates. Without carbs, which are the most readily-available sources of fuel, your body has no choice but to burn stored fat for energy. People who follow the keto diet aim to achieve this state by eating an extremely low amount of carbs, explains Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Los Angeles. Ketosis is very complicated, and although many people follow the keto diet based on information they find online or word of mouth, it's not always fully safe if done unsupervised, she adds.
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The tricky thing about these so-called keto foods is that "one food will not put you in ketosis," Davis says. When a food is labeled "keto," it typically means that it's very low in carbs. But here's the gag: the Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate the labels that companies put on packaged foods, so "products that are labelled low-carb or keto are making up their own standards at this point in time," she says. There's no agreement about how many carbs would be considered "low," and there's definitely no consensus about how the food industry defines "keto" yet.
Despite the real meaning of the word, "keto" has become synonymous for "healthy." But just because a product claims to be keto doesn't mean that it's necessarily the healthy choice for you. "Some 'keto' products are very high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which, if consumed in excess, can increase the risk of certain diseases," Davis says. In the same way that "gluten-free" is often seen as a healthier option (even though it's not), it's easy to see how a "keto" label could be misleading.
So, this is all to say that you shouldn't take "keto" snacks and foods for face value. Read the nutrition label if you have any questions about a claim or ingredient you're not familiar with, and consult a registered dietitian if you have any questions, Davis says. Even though the keto diet seems ubiquitous right now, it's really not for everyone. Beyond the potential dangers of ketosis, any restrictive diet that classifies foods as compliant and non-compliant probably isn't worth your time.
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