May 2004 Issue--Call it the “persona non grata” of the nutrient world. Carbohydrates, long considered an accepted part of a balanced diet, are the nutrient no one in the food industry seems to want to be seen with these days. In just two short years, carbs have become the leper of the food world. Many food companies are either dancing a jig or wringing their hands based on how deeply their product fortunes are tied to carbs.

For purveyors of meat, eggs and cheese, for instance, life has indeed been good lately. After years of being slammed for their high fat and cholesterol content, those foods now find themselves all but forgiven simply because they are low in carbs.

At the same time, marketers of breads, rice, pasta, legumes and other carb-rich foods, who thought they had settled into a comfortable seat at the base of the government's Food Guide Pyramid, now must feel as though the mysterious power of the pyramid has been unleashed upon them in the cruelest of ways.

Suddenly, it seems much of what food nutrition experts and food technologists thought they knew about diet and food formulation is out the window.

Carbs long have been acknowledged as an essential nutrient and are integral to the flavor and functionality of many foods. Now, however, “carbohydrate” has become a veritable four-letter word to millions of consumers, especially those in the U.S. Indeed, carbs, implicated in the growing phenomenon of expanding girth and the health problems it spawns, are seemingly becoming “public enemy number one” in the battle for the American waistline.

“Obesity trends are really driving interest in low-carb foods,” says Ed O'Neill, associate director of The Food Processing Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, provider of technical and business development services for the food industry. “The trend has taken off because consumers are embracing the idea that there may be another culprit in their diets besides fat. And with anywhere from 37 to 42 million people on some sort of low-carb diet, the market is huge and, moreover, includes a very broad group of people, much broader than, say, just the population of aging consumers.”

Whether Low-carb Will Wither

However, established food companies that have seen fad diets and food trends come and go might be excused for not taking the carb backlash seriously. Having witnessed the much ballyhooed fat-free foods trend of recent years fail to live up to initial hype, mainstream food marketers could make a compelling case for not biting on the low-carb lure. The prospect of either spending millions to heavily market foods naturally low in carbs or reformulating products to be lower in carbs--all to meet a demand that may ultimately wither--may ultimately give pause to many established food marketers.

Nevertheless, the fast-moving current of the anti-carb trend cannot be dismissed, at least not yet. Millions of consumers are flocking to diets that revolve around restricted carb consumption. Scores of companies, many new and focused like a laser on the narrow but growing niche, are rolling out carb-free and reduced-carb foods, following a trail blazed by the likes of Atkins Nutritionals Inc. (Ronkonkoma, N.Y.), which has unveiled a broad line of low-carb foods reflecting the tenets of the hugely popular low-carb Atkins Diet. And, while the new food product pipeline is jammed with new low-carb offerings, sales of existing high-carb foods are suffering while naturally low-carb food sales are booming. (See chart “The Carb Component.”)

A sampling of some of the market research that has been conducted lately provides ample evidence that the demand for low-carb foods bears watching.

Based on two surveys of 1,800 U.S. adults completed in January 2004, Opinion Dynamics Corporation (Cambridge, Mass.) concluded that about 11% of Americans--24 million adults--are on a diet that restricts carbohydrates, such as Atkins, The Zone or the South Beach. In addition, 20% have tried such a diet in the past two years, and another 19% are “very” or “somewhat” likely to try one in the next two years.

In findings released in February, ACNielsen U.S. found that about 17% of U.S. households currently include someone who is on a low-carb diet. At the same time, however, about 19% of households reported that someone in the household was once on such a diet, but is no longer, raising some red flags either about the mere fickleness of the consumer or the staying power of the low-carb trend.

Meanwhile, a study of 1,200 people conducted for LowCarbiz, a Denver-based newsletter focused on the emerging low-carb foods industry by The Valen Group (Cincinnati), found 17 million Americans are following a specific low-carb diet like Atkins, and that another 32 million Americans are monitoring their carb intake in some way. It also predicts that nearly 20% of all U.S. adults will consider a low-carb diet in the next year.

The reasons are clear from other data showing the growing problem of weight control in the U.S. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 65% of U.S. adults aged 20-74 are overweight or even obese, and that the number could climb as high as 73% by 2008.

What's Selling

With carbs fingered as one cause, it is no surprise food sales data seem to reflect a move away from high-carb foods to those with lower carb content. For the 52 weeks ended Dec. 27, 2003, unit sales of most of the leading foods naturally high in carbs declined. Rice sales declines led the way, with instant rice falling 8.2% and bulk and packaged rice falling 4.9%. Other decliners included white bread (down 4.7%); dry pasta (down 4.6%); regular carbonated beverages (down 5.9%) and refrigerated orange juice (down 3.8%).

Conversely, sales of foods low in carbs, but high in protein, generally rose. Meat snacks were up 7.6%; nuts were up 8.8%; and cheese was up 4%. Egg unit volume declined 0.2%, but dollar sales rose 18.5%.

Overall dollar sales of low-carb foods are expected to grow substantially this year, according to one source. San Diego-based Nutrition Business Journal predicts spending on specially formulated low-carb foods, excluding foods naturally low in carbs, could reach almost $3 billion this year, up from about $1.4 billion in 2003.

At the same time, data also show that the food industry is scrambling to respond positively to the advancing low-carb trend. According to figures compiled by new product tracker Mintel International (Chicago), the pace of low-carb food and beverage introductions has been quickening, most notably in the U.S.

The company's recently updated Global New Products Database (GNPD) statistics show 319 such new products were rolled out in 2003 in the U.S., up from a mere 85 in 2002 and only two in 1999. Through mid-March 2004, some 427 new products had already been introduced. Canada is the only other country that comes close to the U.S. in low-carb introductions. But just 31 hit that market in 2003, up from 11 in 2002, and impending new rules will likely put a damper on various low-carb-type claims. (See chart “Global Phenomena?”)

The low-carb new product lineup is a diverse one, ranging from offerings that involve a simple change in the basic types of food offered to those that have been formulated using different raw ingredients that work to reduce carb content.

In what was one of the first forays into low-carb frozen meals by a large mainstream food company, Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods is introducing a new lineup of frozen meals that replace high-carb side offerings with low-carb selections. The new Life Choice line, which will include main dishes of pot roast, chicken Parmesan and Italian sausage breakfast scrambles, replaces such old carb-laden standbys as bread, potatoes and pasta with lower-carb vegetables.

According to news reports about the product introduction, ConAgra said it had no plans to make low-carb versions of existing ConAgra products.

Other major food companies have chosen to enter the low-carb market in a similar fashion. British food company Unilever NV, for example, rolled out low-carb versions of Ragu pasta sauce, Lipton tea and Skippy peanut butter in January. In anticipation of a reported mass rollout in May, Frito-Lay has been test marketing low-carb chips made with soy protein and fiber under the Doritos Edge brand.

A Sampling of Other Recently

Introduced Low-carb Foods:

  • A low-carb granola cereal from Carbsense Foods (Hood River, Ore.). Containing 29g of carbs per serving, offset by 25g of dietary fiber, the cold cereal is touted as having 4g of net carbs. Carb cutting is accomplished partly by using soybeans, almonds, oat fiber, polydextrose and a high-intensity sweetener.

  • A low-carb pasta product from American Italian Pasta Company (Excelsior Springs, Mo.). Touted as having added fiber and higher protein, the spaghetti, rotini and penne product will have nearly half the per-serving carbs as regular pasta.

  • Low-carb ice cream from Morico Foods (Evansville, Ind.). The Pure De-Lite brand product uses erythritol, inulin and sucralose in place of sugar, thereby reducing effective carbs to 3g per serving. The product, which will come in several flavors, also is billed as being a good source of fiber, an unusual claim for such a product.

  • Low-carb cheesecakes from Galaxy Desserts (San Rafael, Calif.). Formulated with sugar-free chocolate, the premium sweetener, maltitol, and a specially formulated low-carb graham cracker crust, the product contains roughly 6g net carbs.

  • Whole wheat bread by Bimbo Bakeries U.S.A. (Fort Worth, Texas). It is sold under the new Orowheat Carb Counting brand that contains 6g of net carbs--those that convert rapidly to blood glucose and thought mostly responsible for weight gain--per serving. Total carbs total 9g and dietary fiber comes in at 3g. In addition to whole wheat flour, the product uses oat fiber, wheat bran and whey protein isolate to reduce carbs.

Formulation Forays

The supermarket is not the only place low-carb products are showing up. More restaurants are serving up low-carb fare. Whether it involves cutting back on servings of rice and potatoes, offering specially formulated breads or replacing typical sandwich breads with things like lower-carb tortillas, foodservice outlets are trying to reduce the carb count of their menu selections.

At fast food outlets such as Subway (Milford, Conn.) and Blimpie (Atlanta), specialty breads used to be a selling point. Now, the marketing emphasis has switched to low-carb flour tortilla “wraps” instead of traditional bread sandwiches.

A Kansas City-based company that has built a business around supplying low-carb fare to restaurants like Applebee's is working on formulating low-carb versions of a variety of new products for the foodservice market, ranging from pizza crusts to muffins to cheesecake, all under the Carbwatch brand.

“We're trying to make everything taste like a regular product,” says Bob Deal, president of Real Food Marketing. “Flour-based products can be challenging, but we're trying to work with more protein-heavy flours from such products as beans and nuts.”

No doubt, the challenge of making acceptable low-carb versions of foods is palpable. Just as food companies struggled with how to reduce or eliminate fat, sugar and sodium without compromising taste and consistency, the casting out of carbs is fraught with difficulty. Carbs are such an essential building block of so many popular foods that reducing or eliminating them presumes a real willingness on the part of consumers to move out of their food comfort zones.

But with the help of everything from a new generation of sweetening agents to novel sources of flour to new types of bulking agents that aid functionality, the food industry is hunkering down in the lab to render new low-carb products.

Formulators looking to hone in on the so-called “bad” carbs, those derived from sugars and starches that rapidly convert to blood glucose after digestion, are turning to a variety of other types of carbs. Sources of dietary fibers such as pectins, gums and cereal brans are an example. Additionally, sugar alcohols such as maltitol, sorbitol and isomalt can be used in place of sugar, but their level of use often is limited by their laxative effect. Resistant starches that work like dietary fibers by escaping digestion and other fiber-like ingredients such as polydextrose, also are finding acceptance in low-carb formulating.

The challenge of formulating low-carb versions varies from product to product, as does the approach to reducing the carb content. Manufacturers of salty snacks, which rely heavily on refined carbs, have been experimenting with adding protein. While that can help dilute the carb content, it can adversely affect texture.

White bread product suppliers have been experimenting with adding wheat gluten and other proteins in place of flour. Non-wheat flours, such as those derived from soy, have found some acceptance, as well. But high levels of these additives can compromise color and crumb structure. Reducing carbs in whole grain breads that contain relatively higher amounts of dietary fiber and other whole grain components versus white bread with refined flour may be less of a problem because the texture of such products may be less radically altered.

Confectionery products also are increasingly being marketed in low-carb versions. High-intensity sweeteners that replace sugars are the essential ingredients in formulating both chocolate and non-chocolate candies.

While manufacturers have made great strides using such tactics to make lower-carb products, doing so both economically and successfully from a quality acceptance standpoint has proved more elusive. All of those factors come into play in the drive to bring low-carb products to market, and it is the rare formulator that can touch all of those bases successfully.

“It's like a juggler trying to keep three balls in the air at the same time,” says Dean Rotbart, executive editor of LowCarbiz, the Denver-based newsletter. “The three obstacles are taste, carb count and price. All of them have to be overcome to compete successfully in the market. There's an enormous amount of work going on to address the pull and tug between taste and carbs, and there are some products, like pasta for example, that just haven't been done justice to yet in the taste area.”

Ingredient availability is an emerging issue. Burgeoning demand for low-carb products is putting a premium on certain ingredients used to formulate them. For near term, Rotbart says, prices for some ingredients useful in making low-carb foods may remain high and in short enough supply to possibly produce rationing.

“But suppliers are working hard to bring more capacity on line,” he says. “In six months we're likely to see an oversupply scenario.”

Regarding Regulations

Indeed, a half-year in the life of a rapidly evolving product category is a long time. Signs point to the landscape for low-carb foods changing dramatically in other ways. One change that seems destined to occur in a not too distant future concerns how low-carb products are defined, labeled and marketed.

With no firm definitions of what constitutes a claim of terms like “low-carb,” “reduced-carb,” “good source of carbs,” and even “no-carb,” not to mention the newly coined “net carb” designation, some marketers have been playing fast and loose with designating foods as being friendly to carb-conscious consumers.

At the urging of groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA, Washington), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA, Washington) has injected itself into the labeling debate. FDA reiterated on March 15, 2004 that defining terms with respect to carbohydrates in foods would be one component of a multi-pronged assault on obesity. The agency said it would initiate rulemaking procedures with respect to petitions filed by GMA and other groups requesting labeling guidelines sometime in mid-June.

In a Q and A backgrounder on its website (, the FDA noted that the growing obesity problem, combined with the need to protect consumers from misleading claims, required action on finally clarifying carb labeling. It observed that “claims for the carbohydrate content of foods have become increasingly common in the marketplace, while the level of carbohydrates in foods marketed under the various carbohydrate claims appear to vary widely.”

In its petition, GMA asked FDA to establish new regulations for carbohydrate nutrient claims. Doing so will help member companies provide more accurate carbohydrate content information on food labels, it said.

“It's difficult to provide the consumer with the information they want on carbs when we don't have any standards in place,” explains Stephanie Childs, a spokesperson for GMA. “We've made recommendations to establish a full range of nutrient claims, from what constitutes terms like 'excellent source' of carbs and 'low-carb.'”

In deciding how to define terms, FDA will have to sort through numerous recommendations and studies. GMA has suggested FDA use a National Academy of Sciences Macronutrient Report that it points to as the gold standard for analysis of role and importance of carbohydrates in the diet.

Using that study as a basis, GMA has proposed some rough guidelines. One, for instance, would define “low-carb” as no more than 9g per a typical serving size of 100g of food. Another petitioner, Center for Science in the Public Interest (Washington), has reportedly asked that the “low-carb” level be set at 6g, and that a “reduced-carb” label require a food to have 25% fewer carbs than original versions.

“Net carbs,” a term born out of the anti-carb movement, will also be a focus of FDA's rulemaking. A somewhat controversial designation employed by marketers like Atkins Nutritionals, the term is now used to designate only those carbs most implicated in weight gain--those that elevate blood sugar. Generally excluded from the definition are carbs that come from other sources like fiber and sugar alcohols. Critics of the “net carb” designation, though, say the designation is misleading because marketers use it to mask true carb content.

Clearing up confusion over labeling may be critical to extending the life of the low-carb movement by instilling more confidence in consumers. Expectedly, there's strong evidence that consumers rely heavily on package labels to guide them in their purchase of low-carb foods. The previously mentioned Opinion Dynamics poll conducted in January found two-thirds of respondents said low-carb labels were “very” or “somewhat important” in helping them select foods that meet their low-carb criteria.

The debate over how to define terms in the low-carb food world is important, but it is only part of the story. The real issue for food marketers is determining the nature of consumer demand for foods with reduced carbs. The big question they face is how far the consumer will take his quest for cutting carbs. That will have big implications for how low-carb foods are formulated.

LowCarbiz's Rotbart says it is likely the low-carb evolution will closely track the experience the industry had with formulating lower-fat foods. While the initial push was for fat-free, consumers and the industry finally gravitated toward reduced-fat products.

“The big picture issue is where the line will be drawn between low-carb and reduced-carb [products],” says Rotbart. “We believe the market is going to be larger for reduced-carb, which will mean that food marketers will have greater ability to make products taste good and priced right while delivering something between, say, 9g and 15g of carbs per serving. We think more people are going to ultimately want to trim their consumption of sugar, white flour and starch without making the commitment to a morning-to-evening low-carb foods regime.”