TOPICS > Health

Low Carb Craze

April 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The low carbohydrate craze is changing the way American consumers eat and shop.

BONNIE DEININGER: Oh, my gosh. I used to eat pasta probably four times a week, five times a week. And, absolutely, mashed potatoes with, you know, a piece of fish and mashed potatoes and vegetables —

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Thinking that was healthy.

BONNIE DEININGER: — thinking that was healthy.

DAVE ROSENBERG: Next week our bakery department is going to offer its own artisan line of fresh-baked breads that are low carbohydrate. We’re also bringing on muffins, and they’re low carbohydrate and made fresh at our bake house.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The basic idea behind a low-carb, high-protein diet is that by limiting the amount of carbohydrates the body gets, it would begin burning more fat instead. Some researchers and health professionals have remained skeptical of diets like the Atkins, saying they fear that people will eat too much protein and fatty foods, leading to increased cholesterol and heart disease. Although the controversy continues, a newly released study found that 59 million adult Americans are currently controlling their carbohydrates. Harry Balzer’s firm, the NPD group, has been analyzing American’s eating habits for the last 25 years. He says, interest in a low-carb lifestyle really took off last year.

HARRY BALZER: In February of 2003 when we did our survey about “are you or are you not on a diet?” we found that about 1 percent of the population said they were on a low-carb, high-protein diet. Six months later that number tripled; it went from about 3 million people to 11 million people. You don’t have diets moving that fast anywhere unless something is happening.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Recently in Denver 500 people representing 250 companies showed up at the first ever low-carb business conference, shocking the conference organizer, Dean Rotbart.

DEAN ROTBART: This is an unbelievable event in the sense that when we started planning it in late September, we thought we would probably have a couple dozen companies to come: We would sit around a single table and we would talk about industry issues. And so we invited a few friends and the whole planet showed up. I mean, this is the hottest thing to hit the food industry probably since frozen foods. I mean, to be perfectly honest, you probably have to go back to the invention of the refrigerator and the freezer to see how important an impact this has had on the industry.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Major marketers are moving toward low-carb foods in a big way. Sales for low-carb products were estimated at $1.3 billion last year by the Nutrition Business Journal. McDonald’s is testing menu choices such as a bun-less Big Mac. Burger King also offers a burger without the bread, while Subway has come up with a sandwich that replaces bread with a wrap.

COMMERCIAL: But with under 11 net carbs, they will help you satisfy your goal for low carb goals.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: At a downtown Chicago subway several customers were delighted with the new choice.

SHEILA WHITE: I thought it was great. It’s a great alternative to some of the other things maybe that I would have been eating for lunch during the week or also for dinner. And it’s good to have places that are fast food restaurants that are now catering to a different lifestyle, versus more of the higher carbohydrate diets.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Franchise owner Murad Fazal says it took three months of negotiations between Subway and Atkins Nutritionals Inc. to gain the right to use the Atkins name on their products. After that it’s been smooth sailing.

MURAD FAZAL: It’s been amazing. I mean, we’re selling them so well, we just can’t even keep them on the shelves long enough. There is a huge craze. You know, obviously there’s been a shift in the consumers from a low-fat diet to the Atkins and low-carb diets, and now we just have another product that’s been endorsed by the Atkins organization. We have another product on the menu to provide to our customers.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The low-carb revolution has had some losers as well as winners. Producers of high-carb producers have seen a drop off in sales. A study by the National Bread Leadership Council says bread sales are down by 40 percent. This Chicago bakery hasn’t experienced that kind of a drop, but sales have slowed down in the last several years. Company president Robert Piccheitte attributes some of that slowdown to the attention focused on low-carb diets.

ROBERT PICCHEITTE: I think this whole Atkins issue is if you look at papers and things, it’s getting a higher and higher profile from you guys, and more and more people are starting to ask about it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Red Hen is one of the very few bakeries in Chicago that makes all of its bread by hand. Bakers mix and shape each loaf before it goes into the oven. Red Hen supplies Chicago’s top restaurants and hopes to open several more retail outlets in the next year. One of the ways Red Hen responded to the concern about carbs was to put in a suggestion box asking people if they wanted a low-carb bread. Some of the answers: “Yes, please, low-carb bread.” Or: “You are kind and you did not ask about carbs. No, in my book, bread is not dead.” Red Hen’s bakers have been working hard to develop a low-carb bread. But they’ve found it’s not that easy, especially when good taste is a must.

ROBERT PICCHEITTE: Anybody can eat cardboard. But if you can eat it and it tastes good, that’s a whole different story, so that’s what we’re shooting for.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Why is it so hard to make low-carb bread taste good?

ROBERT PICCHEITTE: Because you’re removing the flour portion that really has that … the flavors and the texture, and you’re putting in a protein base, which … that’s what dries it out. It’s like beans — you know, beans and soybeans and those kinds of things — if you taste those products, they’re very flat. You know, they’re not full of the great flavor that the flour’s got.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: While bread and pasta sales have slowed down, sales of beef have picked up. At one of Chicago’s top steak houses, Gibsons, waiters proudly display huge cuts of beef and carb-conscious customers dig in.

WAITER: This is the Chicago cut. This is Chicago. Looking for a piece of meat. All they got, flavor. Chicago is meat tonight.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Even the Mad Cow disease scare hasn’t kept customers away, says managing partner John Colletti.

JOHN COLLETTI: Our sales were up sizably for the year 2003. But we have seen our locals and a lot of customers pushing the white away, pushing the breads, even pushing some of our phenomenal double-baked potatoes, and staying with the meat, salads and our fish too.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In Gibson’s bar it’s new low-carb beers that are selling. With all the new low-carb products rapidly entering the market there is growing pressure to set standards defining what low carb means.

DEAN ROTBART: This industry needs to start thinking like an industry. I’m very committed to making it do that. It needs to make sure it protects consumers, because there are some bad operators already out there slapping “low carb” on things that really are not, putting ingredients in low-carb products that are … may help you lose weight but they’re not healthy.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Rotbart understands that if the new low-carb industry does not set standards, government regulators may step in, a step he would like to see the fledging industry avoid.