Macro mania: The highs and lows of American nutrition

Low carbohydrate/high protein pills, powders, foods and beverages—along with a new generation of 'very high' and 'very low level' macronutrient-driven products—are sweeping America. Destined to once again be a multibillion dollar market, macronutrient nutrition is regaining its momentum thanks to new nutritional guidelines released by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine's (NAS/IOM) Food and Nutrition Board, establishing the first-ever recommended intake levels for dietary fibre, carbohydrates, nine essential amino acids, total fat, and alpha-linolenic and linoleic fatty acids. The report also established upper level intakes to "help consumers avoid harm by consuming too much of a nutrient." These nutrients are being boosted by media coverage highlighting health issues related to protein, total carbohydrate, sugar, dietary fibre and fat.

With a new emphasis on "the prevention of chronic disease, as well as possible adverse effects of over-consumption," the new guidelines advise a reduction in added and refined sugar to 25 per cent of total calories and a drop in total carbohydrate intake from an average of 230­280g/day to 130g/- day and send a strong message advocating avoidance of trans fatty acids and saturated fat. Of particular importance, the Board did not set a cautionary 'upper limit' for protein or dietary fibre—leaving the door open for high-fibre products. It also made no recommendation involving the Glycemic Index, noting there is insufficient evidence of the GI's relationship to the prevention of chronic diseases and thereby throwing a caution to GI-focused claims.

While these new recommendations will no doubt spur reformulation of existing products and resurrect a few age-old negative issues, they also will likely provide scientific support for many exciting new products and repositioning opportunities.

Carbs go mainstream
First popularised by the Atkins diet and fueled by fears the government's high-carb/low-fat approach may have inadvertently caused the US obesity epidemic, high-protein/low-carbohydrate practices have moved mainstream. More than one- third of consumers in Walnut Acres' 2002 survey believed cutting out carbohydrates and adding protein to be good choices to improve long-term health—coming in just behind taking dietary supplements and cutting calories. Gallup/Multi-Sponsor Surveys reports that just more than four in 10 consumers—or 86 million Americans—made a 'strong/some effort' to reduce carbohydrates in 2002 and that one out of five of the nation's 60 million dieters were on a high-protein/low-carbohydrate weight-loss regimen.

The Natural Marketing Institute's newly released Health and Wellness Trends Report 2003 confirms that nearly two-thirds of the US population used low-carbohydrate and high-protein foods in 2002. (figure 1) More important, NMI reports that 21 per cent of all US households increased their use of low-carbohydrate foods last year, and 16 per cent increased their use of high-protein foods.

Not surprisingly, wise marketers are responding to this trend. Most significant, perhaps, was Anheuser-Busch's launch of Michelob Ultra last September, the first major low-carb beer. In addition to Atkins' Nutritionals, other companies such as Keto Products (Life Services Supplements Inc, New Jersey) offer more than 100 SKUs of low-carb products ranging from cereals to tortilla chips, while many bar marketers are now flagging 'high protein, low carb' on their packages. Others, such as Prime, have opened low-carb stores in Southern California that are based on the Atkins diet plan. In addition, Information Resources reported that protein supplements sales jumped 29 per cent in mass-market channels for the year ending September 2002.

Indications are that the high-protein/ low-carb market will remain strong. Sloan Trends & Solutions' EWATTS Media Monitoring system reports that carbohydrates and protein have jumped into the second-highest level of media coverage recorded, right behind the leading categories of women's health, functional foods, heart disease and fat. More importantly, the media is reversing its initial negative message on the effectiveness of high-protein diets, with coverage jumping from less than 50 per cent positive last year to more than 80 per cent positive this last quarter. At the same time, NMI's 2003 study reports that 11 per cent of consumers say their diet is deficient in protein; four in 10, deficient in soy protein. In addition, more than half of consumers believe high-protein/low-carb regimens are an effective means of losing weight, while 49 per cent believe they are based on sound science.

Protein power
As the high-protein side of the market matures, look for two major market opportunities to emerge. First, with new requirements for nine essential amino acids, including isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine + cysteine, phenylalanine + tyrosine, threonine, tryptophan, valine and histidine, watch for amino acid-directed products, flags and 'contains' claims to gain in popularity. Second, watch for more attention at the source of protein as marketers look to differentiate from competitors. Today, you can't talk about protein without talking about soy, a $3.67 billion US food business in 2002. According to Gallup/Multi-Sponsor Surveys, 14 per cent of all adults consumed soy foods in 2002, up from 13 per cent in 2001, and six per cent consumed soy beverages, down from eight per cent in 2000. But, while the market for soy protein continues to move mainstream, other protein sources offering a wide range of health benefits, and particularly those with a wide complement of amino acids such as whey protein, will continue to gain in popularity.

Sugar blues, flavoured fibre
With 60 per cent of adults and 14 per cent of kids overweight, just more than one quarter of adults obese, 18 million diabetics, an estimated 70 million with some impaired glucose malady, and dental cavities increasing in children six to eight years and those age 50+, it's not surprising that Americans are keeping an eye on sugar intake. According to Gallup/Multi-Sponsor Surveys, 56 per cent of consumers made a 'strong' or 'some' effort to reduce their sugar intake in 2002; the number of those making 'some effort' jumped more than eight per cent over 2001. Among those watching their weight, 44 per cent were on a low-sugar regimen, a jump of 12 per cent over 2001 (figure 2).

When it comes to foods, NMI's 2003 study revealed that four out of 10 shoppers usually check the package label for forms of sugar before they purchase and that 34 per cent prefer foods with no added sugar. With the NAS/IOM's first-ever recommendation to limit added and refined sugars to 25 per cent of daily calories, recent new-product introductions including Keebler and Kraft/Nabisco's sugar-free cookie ranges are right on target.

Despite this overt protein-ism, not all carbohydrates are connected to poor health. In fact, according to Gallup Multi-Sponsor Surveys, 94 per cent link fibre to improved bowel health; 83 per cent, energy; 77 per cent, heart disease; 71 per cent, cancer prevention; 70 per cent, weight control; and 43 per cent, diabetes management. The Packers FreshTrends Survey reports that fibre is the third-most frequent nutritional issue consumers say they confront; right after reducing fat and weight and just slightly above lowering cholesterol. According to NMI's 2003 study, 29 per cent of all US households increased their use of high-fibre foods in 2002.

The IOM defines fibres as 'dietary fibre' (non-digestible carbohydrates and lignins that are found in plants); 'functional fibre' (synthetic or isolated non-digestible carbohydrates that have beneficial physiological effects in humans) and 'total fibre' as the sum of both.

An Adequate Intake (AI) was set for total fibre in foods at 38 and 25g/day for young men and women. Median intakes of dietary fibre run in average American diets today from 13.9g/day for women and 18.6g/day for men—kids get less than half their requirement. The NAS document offered strong support linking fibre and heart disease/cholesterol, weight, diabetes and colon health, with moderate support for a relationship with breast and colon cancer.

New wave of low fat
Despite a popular belief by many food and diet experts, the fat issue has never really gone away. It remains among the most reported health topics in the media, with only 23 per cent positive coverage, and still tops Americans' list of nutrition/food concerns. Gallup/Multi-Sponsor Surveys reports that—although down from the mid-90s—62 per cent are still making a 'strong' or at least 'some' effort to reduce their total fat intake; 58 per cent, saturated fats; 32 per cent, hydrogenated oils; and 31 per cent, trans fatty acids. Two thirds of all dieters are on a low-fat regimen. NMI's 2003 study tells us that 60 per cent of the general population agrees 'completely/- somewhat' that it is important for their store to have foods that are fat-free.

These new recommendations will provide scientific support for many exciting new products and repositioning opportunities
With strong media coverage of the NAS/IOM guidelines recommending restriction of fat to 20-35 per cent of calories and their position that saturated and trans fats "provide no known beneficial role in preventing chronic disease," the fat issue may well resurface, although in a more specific light. Last July, at the FDA's urging, the NAS released its studies on the health risks of trans fats to help the agency craft its food labeling policy.

The IOM's established link between trans fat and heart disease prompted the FDA to require a trans fat entry on labels by the end of fiscal year 2003. Cutting-edge marketers like Pepsi's Frito-Lay, the world's largest maker and marketer of salty snacks, eliminated trans fats from its Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos product lines. The company is also introducing Lay's Reduced Fat chips and Cheetos Reduced Fat snacks. In 2003, Frito-Lay plans to eliminate hydrogenated oils and convert to corn oil, a trans fat-free oil, in the production of Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos. And, to end on a positive note, the report set recommended Daily Values for two omega fatty acids, alpha linolenic and linoleic.

While everything old may seem new again, the issues, opportunities and resolutions will be quite different for macronutrient marketing this time around. One thing is for sure, it will be a very big market.

A Elizabeth Sloan, PhD, president Sloan Trends and Solutions, Inc.
PO Box 461149 Escondido, California 92046
Tel:+1 760 741 9611 [email protected]

Gleaning ingredient opportunities

% general population stating they consider their diet deficient in...



Soy protein


Soy isoflavones




Whole grains






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