Hidden carbs on a ketogenic diet, especially when you’re starting out and trying to get into ketosis, are your “enemy number one.” Carbs aren’t necessarily bad. But they can keep you from achieving ketosis, or keep you in a weight plateau you can’t seem to get past no matter what you do.
Every little bit of the hidden carbs can quickly add up and even take you out of ketosis.
The Basics: Net Carbs and Total Carbs
In the US, food labels have “total carbs” that include fiber content. In Europe, that’s not the case. Net carbs doesn’t count fiber. Why? Fiber is non-impact or low-impact carbs with low GI (glycemic index) that don’t affect your blood sugar levels. They’re slowly digested and released into your bloodstream in a sustained period, making them perfect for meeting your everyday energy needs for physical challenges and mental alertness.
The tricky part is this: when beginners confuse low-carb as synonymous with ketogenic diet, and “net carbs”  end up NOT counting carbs from veggies, proteins, and the carbs and sugar alcohols often found in “carb-free,” “sugar-free” foods.
Low-carb is not low enough. They all count if you want to get into ketosis. Remember:
LC ≠ K (Low-carb does not equal ketosis).
The Trickiest Hidden Carbs That Trip You Up
Hidden carbs are everywhere, sometimes innocent, sometimes not. Many believe that as long as you cook your own meals and avoid processed food, you’ll avoid hidden carbs. Not really. For example, you could be making your own tacos, including the chips and sauce, and you could still be racking up the same amount of carbs as if they were all store-bought.
Especially for beginners, hidden carbs lurk in “healthy” options, like sugar-free foods.
Sugar alcohols, also called “the polyols,” are in everything labeled “sugar-free” and even “carb-free.” They’re not zero-carb and some of them are associated with insulin spikes and increased blood sugar levels.
- Vegetable glycerin
- Yacon Syrup
What you can use instead: Stevia, pure liquid sucralose, erythritol
Seasoning and sauces
You already know to steer clear of sweet sauces, but other flavorings, no matter how healthy (and delicious!), add up to your carb count daily and may be the source of uncalculated carbs. Count them in!
Here’s a tally of carbs in seasonings, sauces, herbs and spices:
In 1 tablespoon:
- Ground Cumin – 2.75g
- Garlic Powder – 6g
- Onion Powder – 5.4g
- Chili Powder – 4.1g
- Oregano – 3.3g
- Cayenne – 3g
- Paprika – 3.3g
Dried/ground, less than 1g per tsp:
- Tarragon, Mint, Basil, Cinnamon, Ginger
- Cloves, Black pepper, Coriander
Blended spices, 1g per tsp:
- Curry powder, Chinese 5-spice, garam masala, pie spice
- Bouillon cubes and powders: 1g per 1/2 cube
- All other blended spices, read the label carefully. Look at huge tubs in Target or Costco if smaller containers/shakers don’t have sufficient information.
- Ginger root, 1g/tbsp
- Garlic, 1 large clove/1tsp minced, 1g
- Lemon/lime juice: 1g/tbsp Lemon/lime rind, 1g/tsp
Vinegar, soy sauce, hot sauces:
- White, cider and wine vinegar are zero carb. Balsamic vinegar 2g/tbsp. Balsamic oil: plain has 3g of carbs and processed has 9-12g in 2 tbsps.
- Soy sauce, 0.5g/tsp
- Tabasco and Red Hot (zero carb). Read the label carefully for Cajun, Trinidad, Jamaican.
Flavor concentrates/extracts (almond, vanilla, orange, etc):
Mustard and mayo:
- Plain, dijon, less than 0.5g/tsp
- Real mayonnaise, 0.5g/tbsp
Supplements and Protein Bars
Anything coated, chewable or flavored are loaded with carbs. If you have to take 2, you would have popped about 7g of carbs before you’ve even had breakfast! Protein bars are jam-packed with carbs. Stay in ketosis even while you continue with your workout.
Carbs in Proteins and Dairy
Deli meats, loaves, ham, sausages, corned beef, wieners, all have starch and sugar (and the more processed they are, the worse they get, linked to 25-50% increase in your risk of cancer). Read the label for the carb count. Some genuinely healthy, all-natural options have 1g or less per serving, but some of the lesser quality meats could reach 10x that!
Canned fish in any sauce have starch and sugar added.
Carb Content in Meat and Eggs
Beef, poultry, pork cuts, lamb, goat– the top recommended meats in the ketogenic diet–have zero carbs. The other protein sources do have the following carb content, before any added breading or sauce/seasonings.
- Liver 4oz: veal/calf liver: 3.1g, chicken liver 1.0g
- Kidney 4oz: 1.1g
- Eggs: 0.6g per one large egg, egg substitutes 1g/1/4 cup
- Shellfish 4oz: Oysters: 8g, Scallops: 2.5g, Shrimp: 1g, Natural crab: 1g, Imitation/Surimi crabmeat: 12-15g, mussels: 8.4g
Full Fat Dairy
All dairy products contain some carbs. Full fat dairy is best, both for the fat and low carb content. 1%, 2%, 10%, low-fat, non-fat varieties are NOT in the ketogenic diet for a reason: the amount of carbs increase when the fat is lowered. Choose full cream, full fat, whole.
The dairy recommended in a ketogenic diet are:
- Whole milk plain or Greek yogurt, 6g to 7g from the naturally-occurring sugars
- Natural butter, zero carbs
- Heavy cream, 0.8g in 2 tbsps
- Sour cream, 1g/oz
Count your Veggies
100 grams of kale has 9g of carbs, 100 grams of spinach has 3.6g and 100 grams of lettuce has 2.9g. Calculate the carbs from the greens that go into your avocado salads and protein green beds.
Keep it Simple
Finding hidden carbs on a ketogenic diet means understanding net carbs and the necessity of counting every ingredient. Avoid misleading labels and keep track of the carb count in the greens, seasonings, and proteins going into your ketogenic meal plans. If you haven’t yet, start a food journal that details your fat, protein and carb intake, with notes about your repeat ingredients, your energy and acuity levels and moods.
The less ingredients your meal has, the better. The more natural they are, the less carbs and unwanted sugars, chemicals and cholesterols you’d ingest, and the healthier you feel! For a full list what to eat, go here. For the full list of what to avoid, go here. Stay in ketosis and feel great from delicious food with the recipes here!
Sources: Lilla Z, Sullivan D, Ellefson W, Welton K, Crowley R. “Determination of “net carbohydrates” using high-performance anion exchange chromatography” J AOAC Int. 2005 May-Jun; 88(3):714-9  Raphaëlle L. Santarelli,* Fabrice Pierre, and Denis E. Corpet, “Processed meat and colorectal cancer: a review of epidemiologic and experimental evidence” Nutr Cancer. 2008; 60(2): 131–144
Fact-checked by Dr. Anthony Gustin, DC, MS.
Written by Joanna Cailas
Joanna is a food and health writer and content manager for USource Digital.