June 2004--Last February, while in Rome attending a scientific conference dubbed “Healthy Pasta Meals,” the Pantheon, one of the world's oldest and most remarkable feats of engineering, commanded my attention. Across the plaza, standing in sharp contrast from its surroundings, stood a McDonalds.

The irony of old and new worlds co-habiting in the same space reminded me of how low-carb fanaticism has swept the food manufacturing, medical and dietetic communities into a debate about what defines a healthy diet. Are balanced diets, an “old concept” that dieticians and doctors have advocated for decades, less legitimate than the notion that saturated fat has redeeming qualities (a tenet of the low-carb diet, a new concept)?

There is not yet enough consistent, reproducible evidence to prove or disprove the theory that a high-fat, low-carb diet is not harmful--let alone healthy. Nevertheless, low-carb apostles are working hard to enter their diets into the status quo of diets considered healthy. In order to do so, they must argue that saturated fat is more acceptable than conventional wisdom dictates.

If, over time, a diet higher in saturated fat is scientifically proven safe, it seems that the high-fat, low-carb perspective and the low-fat, moderate-carb perspective would be mutually exclusive. Meaning, if they are both legitimate, consumers would have to choose one or the other for their weight-loss regime and not alternate between the two. Food manufacturers would then need to create, advertise and better educate consumers about diet products and how those products fit into a specific dietary plan.

In the meantime, obesity is growing around the world. And, regardless of its healthfulness, a low-carb diet is not only a possible weight-loss solution, but also provides business possibilities for food ingredients and consumer products companies alike. Food technologists have the opportunity to use new technologies and creatively formulate new products.

At the Rome conference, John Foreyt, professor of nutrition and director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at the Baylor College of Medicine (Houston), said that a study published by Colleen Rand at the University of Florida (Gainesville) reported “89% of patients who had undergone bariatric surgery to lose weight said 'I'd rather be blind than gain my weight back.'” Until a consensus about nutrition is made, some dieters will take a hard look at the facts, some will see what they want to see, and some will turn a blind eye to the entire controversy.

For more information about the Healthy Pasta Meals Conference, go to the Oldways Preservation Trust website at www.oldwayspt.org.