Skip to comments.Food industry hustles to feed low-carb craze
Posted on 12/07/2003 12:06:29 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
If you're counting carbs -- and you know who you are -- there's a product for you. About a dozen new ones a week, in fact.
From muffins to margaritas, food and beverage companies are rolling out a buffet of reduced-carbohydrate products to keep up with America's latest diet obsession.
"This is a breakout year. We've definitely reached the craze point," said Tom Vierhile, executive editor of Productscan Online, a newsletter that tracks new products. More than 600 reduced-carbohydrate items have cropped up this year, double the number launched in recent years, Vierhile said.
Supermarket experts say it's just the tip of the iceberg, but already more than enough for those banking on carbs for their livelihoods. Leaders in the potato, pasta and bread industries are all coming up with game plans to fend off an attack.
An estimated 26 million Americans have tried the high-protein, low-carb diet that favors meat, cheese and fats over starches. People laughed at the burger-loving regimen when Dr. Robert Atkins proposed it 30 years ago, but the diet has taken on new life in the wake of research that found merit in the Atkins plan, the South Beach diet and similar regimens.
Pork rinds 'take off'
Perhaps no other weight-loss routine has had such a puzzling impact in supermarket aisles.
Sales of bacon and eggs are up. Orange juice is down. And if pork rinds are any indication, this is one oddball diet.
"Our business has really taken off," said Rich Rudolph, president of pork rind maker Rudolph Foods Co. in Lima, Ohio. "The Atkins book mentions pork rinds a few times as a good snack. . . . We think that's why sales are up about 35 percent this year."
Like any good marketer, Rudolph has come up with new "zero-carb" labels for the protein-heavy pork rinds, some of which are made at a plant in Lawrenceville. He said he never dreamed the family's recipe for dried-out hog skins would become a darling of dieters.
"We're used to defending ourselves as far as health stuff goes," Rudolph said.
Marketing experts say they haven't seen the potential for this much of a shake-up in the supermarket since the fat-free binge of the early 1990s.
'Becoming an industry'
More than 1,000 new businesses are catering to the low-carb trend, taking a nonexistent niche 10 years ago to a $15 billion business today, according to LowCarbiz, a Denver-based newsletter.
"I think it's just now becoming an industry," said Dean Rotbart, executive editor of LowCarbiz. "We're starting to see some substantial infrastructure to support it."
In the next few months, Rotbart said, low-carbers will get their own trade and consumer magazines. Conventions and medical conferences are also on tap.
Restaurants such as Ruby Tuesday and Don Pablo's have added low-carb items to their menus. Hardee's is testing a low-carb burger. Even truck stops have joined in -- TravelCenters of America is launching a diet menu in January that includes low-carb items to answer requests from truckers, according to the chain.
The world of starch is understandably worked up.
The bread and baking industry convened at the first-ever National Bread Summit last month to talk shop -- and come up with a counterattack, perhaps in the form of a feel-good consumer education campaign.
"The American diet is evolving, there's no question about that . . . but this is the first time that carbohydrates have been in the bull's-eye," said Patrick Davis, spokesman for the National Bread Leadership Council. "What concerns us is that there's a growing dialogue that says bread is bad, and that just strikes us as irresponsible."
Cutting down on bread
Bread sales in the $11 billion industry have been flat over the last couple of years, Davis said, although there has been strong growth in bakery breads and whole-grain breads.
A recent industry survey found that 40 percent of Americans said they were eating less bread than they were a year ago, but Davis said it was unclear how much of the drop related to low-carb diets.
Bread makers are launching reduced-carb breads to hedge their bets. Similarly, pasta companies plan to huddle in Rome in February to discuss a slide in U.S. sales over the past year. The U.S. Potato Board plans to counteract a drop in sales with an image campaign set to debut next year.
Another big indicator low-carb is making waves on the business radar -- and perhaps posing a threat to small upstarts -- is that mainstream players such as Anheuser-Busch, H.J. Heinz and Russell Stover have jumped in with low-carb products.
The mushrooming low-carb labels are sending up red flags, though, at the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates health claims on packaging. The FDA hasn't defined what "low carb" means, as it did with "low fat," and regulators are cracking down on some claims they say are illegal.
At issue is a convoluted calculation of "good carbs" and "bad carbs," which is akin to the good cholesterol-bad cholesterol debate.
"We went through this with low-fat and 'light' foods, and now we're going through it with low-carb," said Mike Diegel, spokesman for Grocery Manufacturers of America, an industry lobbying group. "We need the FDA to come up with some standards so that we can bring some order to the marketplace."
Craze du jour
For the most part, food industry veterans contend that low-carb is another diet fad that will be replaced by something else in a few years.
"A quarter of the population is always on a diet, and that hasn't changed in 20 years," said Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a marketing research firm that tracks eating trends. "What does change is what diet they are on, and right now it's low-carb, high-protein."
And marketers cater to the craze du jour.
At the peak of the fat-free craze in the mid-1990s, for instance, one-quarter of food and beverage products were branded as low-fat or no-fat, according to Vierhile, of Productscan Online. That's down to 13 percent today, he said.
Only 4 percent of products are now low-carb, but they've only just begun. "You'll see a lot more products in the next couple of years because the pipeline is not nearly full yet," he said.
Give me a steak, potato, a bunch of garlic bread and some wine, that is a perfect meal. Without bread, and a lot of it, I would hardly enjoy meals.
pork rinds = 0 carbs
Ive had a weight problem all my life - my cultural diet doesnt help - (heavy pasta diet) - Ive lost weight before - only to gain it back - however Ive been on this one since 10/17 and have lost 16 pounds so far.
Gained 4 # for thanksgiving - but quickly lost it when I went back to work
I enjoy a tim hortons icced cappucino for breakfast - small bag of fritos (20 mg carbs) ...chinese food (no rice or eggroll) or meatballs for lunch.... and salads - chicken or meat for dinner
Its been super easy and has been a slow sustainable diet ..absolutely no bread, sweets, pasta etc Im presently at 272# - and hope to get down to my fighting weight of 195#.
My wife tried the same diet - didnt lose a pound
DB said: "What do you weigh and how tall are you and last but not least how old are you?"
I don't know about TheOtherOne, but I've been lucky with weight. I've eaten and drank anything and everything I wanted with no problems even when I was a programmer sitting on my butt 10 hours a day. Myself, I'm 5'11", 150-155 lbs and 42.
80 hours of work a week, I deserve it. ;)
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