It's becoming more than just a fad diet
February 18, 2004
BY MAUREEN JENKINS
No longer dismissed as a mere dieting fad, it's reshaping the food industry landscape as we know it. And no segment of the business has been left untouched in the wake of low-carb diets led by Atkins (who himself has been under scrutiny of late) and the sexy-sounding South Beach Diet.
Everything from fast-food joints to restaurant chains to grocery stores is staking its claim on the hottest diet trend since the low-fat movement of the 1980s. Thanks to these diets, previously shunned foods such as scrambled eggs, juicy steaks, and gooey cheese are back on the front burner.
"What more Americans want to do than not is lose weight, and the easiest way to do that is by eating," says Harry Balzer, vice president for NPD Group, whose consumer marketing research firm estimates that about 10 million Americans currently are using some variation of a low-carb, high-protein diet. And he says about 17 percent of U.S. adults -- a whopping 40 million people -- have given low-carb eating a try.
"We haven't had a credible way to lose weight since the nutrition community told us to cut back on fat, and all we did is get heavier," Balzer says. But on low-carb diets, "You certainly see people losing weight, and that's given it credibility."
Even a newly released study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms the link between Americans' ongoing weight gain over the past 30-plus years and the increased number of calories they're taking in. And those extra calories, the study says, result primarily from increased carb intake.
The U.S. weight-loss industry is worth more than $30 billion a year, according to the American Dietetic Association. And of all Americans who've tried to shed pounds, says the Pennsylvania-based Natural Marketing Institute, 36 percent of these have tried dropping the weight by cutting carbs.
And the food industry is working overtime to help them do it. Witness these:
* T.G.I. Friday's Restaurants has teamed up with Atkins Nutritionals for its new Atkins-approved menu, which includes regular Friday's favorites and new dishes. The eatery has added side veggies to its Buffalo Wings (5 net carbs). And it's now serving five new entrees, including a Sizzling NY Strip with Bleu Cheese (6 net carbs) and the appropriately named Cheeseburger Cheeseburger, two Angus burgers minus the bun (6 net carbs).
* Ruby Tuesday restaurants (with several suburban locations) introduced a "Smart Eating" menu that includes more lower-carb alternatives, such as whole-grain fajitas and quesadillas and burgers in whole-grain wraps. Its new "Low-Carb Catch" features Cajun-seasoned broiled tilapia with broccoli and a creamy cauliflower alternative to mashed potatoes.
* Stouffer's Lean Cuisine now offers 10 "Reduced Carbohydrate" frozen meals, each with between 10 and 25 grams of net carbs. On the menu: steak tips portobello, baked chicken Florentine and honey Dijon grilled chicken.
* 7-Eleven convenience stores are housing their low-carb, low-fat, low-cal and high-protein foods together under a "Better Choices, Better Year" awareness campaign. And Atkins headlines the stores' line-up.
* Northbrook-based Lou Malnati's Pizzeria rolled out what it calls the first deep dish crustless pizza in most of its 21 Chicago-area restaurants last month. With a base of lean Italian sausage, cheese and tomatoes, it lets pizza-loving low-carbers -- as well as folks who are wheat intolerant -- get their pizza fix without the trademark crust.
* Even Eli's Cheesecake has cut its carbs with its "No Sugar Added" cheesecake, sweetened with Equal instead of sugar. "It has as many carbs [12 per slice] as one apple," says marketing director Debbie Marchok. Sold in grocery stores and on the Web, the Eli's original cheesecake will be joined by chocolate and key lime versions this spring.
* And of course, the nation's fast food outlets have jumped into the fray, introducing everything from lettuce-wrapped burgers to low-carb tortilla wraps. (See accompanying story.)
"The dietary approach to permanent weight control has not been policy-driven, it's been consumer-driven," says Colette Heimowitz, vice president of education and research for Atkins Health & Medical Information Services. Since 2000, Atkins has brought more than 100 new products to market. "This is the food industry's response to what consumers want."
Adds Denise Foley, deputy editor of Prevention magazine: "That's probably why both Atkins and South Beach have been so successful -- they're not about deprivation."
Defining low-carb eating
The low-carb arena has burgeoned so quickly that there still isn't an official definition of the term. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reportedly working on such consumer guidance this month, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture is redesigning the 12-year-old Food Guide Pyramid that recommends daily food servings -- and which critics charge has made Americans fat by suggesting a diet based primarily on carb-laden grains.
Because there's so much information swirling in the public, Jonny Bowden -- author of the newly released Living the Low Carb Life (Sterling, $19.95) -- has evaluated 14 of the best-known low-carb diets including Atkins, The South Beach Diet, Somersizing, and The Zone in his book. His goal: to make it easier for dieters to choose the weight loss process that best suits their needs and lifestyles.
"The term I try to coach people into using is 'controlled carbs,' which is a more descriptive term," says Bowden, a Los Angeles-based certified nutrition specialist, consultant and former personal trainer. "It's really about controlling the number of high-glycemic carbs we eat."
Bowden maintains that Americans' current carb-driven diets -- filled with refined and processed foods and sugars and so-called low-fat foods -- are unnatural in the first place. He says that early humans hunted, fished and gathered, with agriculture arriving on the scene much later. Thousands of years ago, he says, humans "weren't eating a low-fat version of buffalo."
Bowden believes that low-carb, high-protein diets are "not so much catching on as getting back to what nature had in the first place. It's in our physiological and digestive makeup. Maybe that's why it's refused to die."
American Dietetic Association spokesperson Sue Moores admits the health and nutrition communities "fell short" in educating consumers about "good carbs" such as whole wheat and oats -- and not-so-good ones made from processed grains and sugars. And partly as a result, low-carb diets have "given people a big thumbs-up for foods they've thought of as guilty pleasures for so many years." Hello, bacon, eggs, and steaks.
Winners in the low-carb game
Low-carb-obsessed consumers are speaking with their wallets, and food-based businesses are meeting the demand. Late last month, Low Carb Chicago -- which bills itself as Chicagoland's first store dedicated to low-carb products -- opened in north suburban Vernon Hills with more than 1,500 products.
Owner Kent Roberts lost more than 40 pounds on the Atkins and South Beach diets last year and, after scoping out about 30 low-carb stores on the West Coast, decided to create a one-stop shop for fellow dieters and diabetics.
Product sampling (such as of the locally baked Almost Famous muffins, cookies and pound cakes) is key here, as are in-store seminars by registered dietitians. Roberts says customers travel from as far as Wisconsin and the south suburbs to his 2,200 square-foot store, which he says is large enough to handle the market's growth.
"I firmly believe the proliferation of low-carb products is going to continue," he says, "and I didn't want to be in a situation where within six months my shelves would be bursting and I wouldn't have any way to expand."
On the grocery store level, chains such as Jewel have expanded their offerings over the past couple years, now carrying more than 200 low-carb marketed products, says Jewel-Osco corporate dietitian Kim Kirchherr. She says the diet category is Jewel's second highest dollar growth category, driven primarily by low-carb products from makers such as Atkins, Carb Options, Russell Stover candies, and Michelob.
"This category has been maintaining triple-digit growth for the past 12 to 18 months," says Kirchherr, "and we do not see it leveling off any time soon."
Of course, steakhouses like downtown Gibson's fit perfectly into the low-carb, high-protein lifestyle. A dining mecca for the city's power players and visiting celebs, Gibson's has added some new entrees -- pepper steak medallions in red wine sauce with sauteed peppers & onions, and sauteed steak medallions & broccoli -- to more easily fit dieters' lifestyles.
"We've seen a lot of people push the breadbasket away or ask us not to leave it at the table," says managing partner John Colletti, an Atkins diet follower whose restaurant has adjusted its bread-buying habits because of this change. "And then that person is just going with a regular salad or a vegetable. The steak is the key." Broccoli and spinach have become the side dish stars at this dining powerhouse, but surprisingly, sales of its double-baked potato have held strong.
Battling the hype
Carb-laden products have been sucker-punched over the past couple years -- but trade groups representing them aren't conceding the fight. Florida's citrus growers, for example, have changed their marketing strategy to combat the bad rap orange juice has picked up in the low-carb wake, focusing instead on its health benefits.
The Idaho Potato Commission has launched a $10 million TV ad campaign in markets including Chicago, reminding consumers that their spuds are packed with nutrition. And last month, the commission enlisted exercise guru Denise Austin to spread the word about complex carbohydrates and the role they play in fueling working muscles. It's all part of the commission's "master plan" to tell the other side of the carb story.
"Those that have been putting down carbohydrates as bad for you are really deceiving the public because so many carbohydrates have nutritional benefits," says commission President and CEO Frank Muir, reporting that Idaho potato sales were down about four percent last year. "You cannot have a healthy active lifestyle and not have carbohydrates as part of your diet.
"And it all goes back to a balanced diet, what the FDA and USDA have been advocating for a generation."
With grains at the base of the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid, the American Bakers Association also has plenty to lose if dieters keep ditching carbs. Sales of grain-based foods such as crackers, cookies, tortillas and rolls bring in $60 billion each year, but consumption numbers are down. The Washington, D.C.-based group -- which represents companies like Sara Lee, General Mills and Chicago-based Gonnella Baking Co. -- is conducting a four-month consumer study to determine next steps in the battle against the low-carb machine.
"We understand what we're up against," says ABA President Paul Abenante. "We realized the strength of these kinds of diets and information. You can say it's a fad diet, but this had legs to it. It's going to be around awhile."
Whatever methods ABA decides to employ, says Abenante, "It will be more proactive than defense. We see ourselves telling our story rather than putting a fire out here and a fire out there."
But how does it taste?
For many folks, low-carb diets are simple to follow because they spell out rules. They feature easy-to-understand foods like eggs, bacon and lettuce. And increasingly, dieters can find food products on their local store shelves.
But while these items' net carbs may be reduced, the taste often is, too. So last month's Prevention featured a taste test of more than 60 low-carb products ranging from brownies to macaroni and cheese. Twelve items topped the magazine's list, while deputy editor Denise Foley says that when tasting others, "I quite literally spit into a napkin."
Among the pleasant surprises: Natural Ovens' Lo-Carb Bread -- Golden Crunch (seven carb grams), Eli's No Sugar Added Cheesecake (12 grams), and Atkins Endulge Wafer Crisp Bar in chocolate (four net carb grams) -- the only item to earn a perfect score from Prevention taste testers.
And with the number of new products on store shelves rising -- Foley says about one new item hits the market daily -- it follows that quality and taste will likely increase. Until then, says author Jonny Bowden, "We will see plenty of fly-by-night stuff that has no business on anybody's plates. But we will see some very ethical companies that are really making an attempt to use good ingredients."
Most experts agree the low-carb craze has legs -- at least for another couple years. Atkins' Heimowitz says that despite health professionals' initial resistance to low-carb diets, "more and more physicians are comfortable in following their patients because of the research." Atkins even offers seminars for doctors and pharmacists in an attempt to educate them on the program.
"I do believe our profession is coming around to realize that there are so many different [ways] people come around to lose weight," says Sue Moores of the ADA. That doesn't mean that her fellow dietitians have embraced low-carb diets over more balanced approaches, she says, but "folks have become so much more open-minded. One size doesn't fit all."
Despite these diets' apparent success, "You don't want to see the renaissance of what we like to call the 'Snackwell's syndrome,'" says Foley, referring to the once-popular low-fat cookies. Even low-carb foods "all have calories, and no matter what anyone says, calories count. If you take too much energy in and don't expend it, you get fat.
"Forget the whole idea that it's magic."
Maureen Jenkins is a Chicago-based writer.
Flat-roasted chicken with prosciutto and green olives
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
1 (3-1/2 pounds) whole chicken
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 pound prosciutto, in one piece, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1/3 cup shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-1/2 cups whole, unpitted green olives
1/2 cup white wine
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
With a sharp, heavy knife, split the chicken down the backbone and open it up. Turn it breast side up and flatten with the palm of your hand. Cut a slit in the skin at the bottom of the breast and slip the "ankles" of the chicken through the slit. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper.
Transfer the chicken, breast side down, to a lightly oiled roasting pan. Bake for 45 minutes. While the chicken is baking, prepare and combine the prosciutto, shallots, garlic and olives.
Remove the chicken from the oven and transfer to a plate. Remove any accumulated fat from the roasting pan. Scatter the prosciutto mixture evenly in the roasting pan and add white wine. Place the chicken skin side up in the pan.
Bake for 45 minutes longer. Remove the chicken. Either carve the chicken or cut it into serving pieces. Pour the prosciutto mixture over the chicken and serve.
From Chef Karen Barnaby,
The Fish House in Stanley Park, Vancouver
Nutrition facts per serving: 523 calories, 31 g fat, 4 g effective carbohydrates, 1.2 g carbohydrates, 52 g protein, 1 g fiber