The Low-Carb Evolution

The Low-Carb Evolution

For right now, being part of the low-carb craze, and even getting into it now to ride the crest of the wave, is admittedly a smart business move. According to Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ), San Diego, CA, the low-carb food category grew from $10 million in 1997 to over $1.4 billion in 2003, and is expected to almost triple by 2006 (NBJ Sports Nutrition & Weight Loss Report 2004). And the food category is only a small part of the equation, as this trend has spawned magazines, trade associations, tradeshows and conferences, grocery stores, multivitamins, and more! In fact, according to LowCarbiz Magazine, Denver, CO, the size of the entire industry is expected to double to $30 billion this year.

Back to the food side of the business, all of the big industry players now have dedicated low-carb brands, including Unilever (CarbOptions), Kraft (CarbWell), Pepsi/Frito-Lay (Doritos Edge), Heinz (One Carb Ketchup), Hain Celestial (CarbFit), Hershey’s (1g) and Michelob (Low-carb Ultra), which have all been inspired by the aggressive niche players like Atkins (Atkins Nutritionals), Carbolite (Carborite), Keto Foods, CarbSense and Richardson Labs/NBTY (Carb Solutions), who started the charge. The very magnitude of the category stems from the fact that products can be bought everywhere, including supermarkets, mass merchandisers, convenience and natural food stores, as well as specialty shops.

Castus Low Carb Superstores, which sell over 1600 low-carb products, are set to open 100 stores this year and project to grow to 5000 stores by 2008. While natural health food and specialty stores account for only 5% of low carbohydrate channels, natural grocery giant Whole Foods attributes 4% of its more than $1.8 billion total packaged goods sales to low-carb products, and low-carb accounts for almost 20% of GNC sales, with total register sales of more than $33 million (NBJ).

As more low-carb products come to market, the press releases fly and media reacts. People keep talking, and hopefully buying; it’s a cycle that has persisted for the past five years, with the real exponential growth happening only in the last two. While less then 1000 new low-carb products were introduced in the four years between 1999-2002, over 1000 new low-carb products have hit the shelves in the past 15 months.

Adding fuel to the media fire and further encouraging the food companies to proliferate are the positive clinical studies being published in well-respected journals. In May 2004, the Annals of Internal Medicine published two papers documenting that low-carb, high-protein dieters lost more weight than low-fat dieters within the first six months, and had reduced blood triglycerides and increased HDL “good” cholesterol levels. People don’t care that the long-term implications and safety have not been fully explored. The bottom line is, Americans want a quick fix, and eating a diet low in carbohydrates (and reducing calories all the while) enables them to lose weight. Therefore, the manufacturers of low-carbohydrate products are giving shoppers what they seem to want in the short term, and in return, these companies continue to make some good money, while redefining themselves by being more current for their consumers.

Changing Strategy: A Focus on Ingredient Benefits & Consumer Education
Unlike the low-fat trend of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which grew out of scientific research pointing toward the relationship between diet and health, the low-carbohydrate craze is being driven by the powerful influence of word of mouth. While low-fat diets were prescribed by doctors and nutritionists, the low-carb diets are being driven by friends, family and others, and there’s a lot of passion involved that make people want to talk.

Although there have been several comparisons between low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets, the one difference that has yet to be touched on is the influence of technology. The revolutionary impact of the Internet—including E-mail, chat rooms and web logs, which did not exist 15 years ago—has created new information networks and social communities, as well as additional sales channels and advertising mediums, which have all contributed to the explosion of this new category. In order to ensure low-carbohydrate products last, companies must focus on building their low-carb brands through new, good tasting and potentially unique product introductions, as well as getting closer to consumers.

It can’t be said enough that the low-carb trend is doomed to follow the path of low-fat if products aren’t as good as their regular counterparts. No consumer will sacrifice taste, especially the occasional low-carb eater who may be paying double for the benefit of a reduced-carb product. Theoretically, creating low-carbohydrate products requires removing easily digested carbohydrates and replacing the macromolecular mass with protein, longer chain less digestible carbohydrates like fibers (including resistant starch and fructo-oligosaccharides like inulin) or water. If some sweetness needs to be added back into products, high intensity sweeteners (like aspartame, sucralose, or acesulfame potassium), or sugar alcohols (such as sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, isomalt, maltitol, lactitol, erythritol, or polydextrose) are used. Obviously this is all easier said than done due to technical challenges, including flavor, texture and processing functionality, which arise with the swapping of ingredients. Taste issues result from protein off-flavors, complex carbohydrate flavor masking and trying to match sweetness levels. Removing lower molecular weight ingredients and replacing them with water and higher molecular weight ingredients often leads to moisture retention and control issues, which then lead to a myriad of texture and mouthfeel consequences, such as bakery goods (cookies, crackers), snacks and bars becoming dry, chalky, gritty, brittle or powdery.

Fiber and protein manufacturers are thriving due to the frenetic pace of low-carb food and beverage development. The low-carb trend has been a boon for dietary fibers like resistant starch, inulin, digestion-resistant maltodextrin, polydextrose and flax seed, as well as soy, oat, barley and wheat fibers. In addition, gums like acacia and guar are also considered fibers and may also play a role. For the most part, fibers serve as bulking agents, replacing the more easily digested simple sugars and fat. However, they are much more sophisticated ingredients due to their health functionality, often regarded as gastrointestinal friends acting as prebiotics (increasing gut-friendly bacteria) or laxatives, and reducing cholesterol, and even having a hand in reducing the risk of certain types of cancer. Not all fibers can necessarily be lumped together because each has its own functionality and/or health benefits.

Inulin is heat stable and water-soluble, and has the unique capability of increasing calcium, as well as zinc and iron absorption. It acts almost as an invisible fiber because it doesn’t impart gritty taste or cereal notes. This makes inulin excellent for baked goods, dairy, bars, confections, chocolate and desserts.

Resistant starch is an insoluble ingredient, which demonstrates excellent functionality in grain-based, low and moderate moisture foods, such as breads, cakes and muffins. Its low water holding capacity translates into good handling during processing and crispness. In terms of health benefits, resistant starch has been linked to a reduced risk of colon cancer.

Polydextrose is also a multifunctional ingredient that can replace both fat and sugars. Originally developed as a fat replacer, polydextrose has found new life in low-carb confections, baked goods, beverages, nutrition bars and reduced-sugar desserts. Since polydextrose is 90% fiber, it acts as a prebiotic and can help manufacturers with a “fiber” label claim.

Protein sources include soy, whey, egg, gelatin and wheat gluten. Although the focus is usually on the low-carbohydrate aspect, let’s not forget that low-carb diets may also be considered high-protein diets as well. Proteins in general are amphophilic and are therefore natural emulsifiers. The improvement of the flavor quality, resulting in blander ingredients, has really helped.

Soy and whey, in particular, are thriving due their functionality and health benefits. Soy has flourished because of its heart health claim, but also because it is effective in bars, bakery products (including muffins, bread, crackers, pancakes, pizza crusts) and beverages. Whey proteins work in a wide variety of applications like snacks (bars), beverages and confectionary products because they have excellent solubility and versatile functionality, in large part due to their water-binding, emulsification, gelation whipping, foaming and viscosity capabilities. Nutritionally, whey proteins and protein fractions have been shown to have cardiovascular benefits, anti-carcinogenic effects, antibacterial and antiviral properties and antioxidant action.

When removing simple sugars from food products, sweetness must be addressed. Sugar alcohols replace sugars and impart the necessary sweetness lost from removal of simple carbohydrates. They are particularly effective for low-carb applications because, unlike the high intensity sweeteners, sugar alcohols are used in similar amounts (volume-to-volume) as sugar.

Unfortunately, you can’t talk about low-carb products without at least touching on the potential negative physiological effects like gastrointestinal distress and cramping, which may occur due to some of the ingredients, namely sugar alcohols. There are many sugar alcohols and each imparts unique relative sweetness and physical properties, such as viscosity, hygroscopicity and application relevance. Toleration studies to understand the gastrointestinal effects of the individual polyols show that for the vast majority of consumers, these sweeteners cause minimal problems. However, in some people, excessive consumption may cause gastrointestinal symptoms, such as gas or laxative effects, similar to reactions to beans and other high fiber-containing foods. Such symptoms depend on an individual’s sensitivity and the other foods eaten at the same time. Food scientists must realize that there is little research on combinations of these sweeteners and must therefore formulate with this in mind. Food manufacturers also need to be responsible for per serving amounts, and also be aware of how much people are actually consuming. Most likely, consumers need to be better educated as to why they may experience gastrointestinal distress (eating too many low-carb foods per day, consuming on an empty stomach), however, labeling of such information would only bring unnecessary attention to these safe ingredients.

Creating Healthy Communication
For processed low-carb products, communication must be directed toward the healthfulness of the functional ingredients, like protein and fiber, which actually make the foods good for you. This is more consistent with what the nutrition community wants to focus on, especially since not all carbohydrates are bad for you, and consumers need to be educated on the better-for-you carbs. Fiber and protein companies need to step up and emphatically lobby the manufacturers to commit to educating consumers on the multitude of the health benefits that low-carb products provide, beyond the fact that they are low in carbohydrates.

In addition to innovative products, these changing times require inventive measures that build customer loyalty through educating consumers on packaging, websites, or with other promotional materials like handouts. According to Mintel, Chicago, IL, which recently released a report on functional foods, only 2% of people polled reported using manufacturers’ websites for information. Both producers and supermarkets need to tout the nutritional benefits of both low- and high-carb products to educate consumers on the specific constituents that make up a good-for-you food. Companies can build consumer trust by informing those who are most interested, as to why and how the products are healthy. Recently, Entenmann’s made a Carb Counting brochure available in supermarkets; it is a well laid out bi-fold that explains what carbohydrates are, and defines net carbs. Atkins Nutritionals and Slim-Fast also provide thorough, informative and interactive websites. These are just a couple of examples of companies that are not only creating healthful, relevant products, but are also building trust and delivering value to their consumers through education and building on the passion consumers have developed for their low-carbohydrate lifestyles.

How to Market
For low-carb products to prevail, scientists and marketing personnel must work together to truly understand who the low-carb purchasers are, what communication messages will keep them loyal and why they are buying these products.

WHO: The widespread familiarity of low-carbohydrate diets (>70% awareness of the Atkins diet according to Rosemont, IL-based NPD Group’s Dieting Monitor) and the sheer number of adults who have been influenced to change their carbohydrate content (37-140 million) almost makes the low-carb trend a mainstream opportunity. Market segmentation of this category is very confusing due to the scope and magnitude of people who are reducing carbohydrate intake. It seems almost everyone in the U.S. has been affected by this craze in some way. However, according to the Fourscore & five Low Carb “Pulse” Study, broad-based messaging meant for mainstream appeal is not as effective as targeting specific groups.

Using technology and trade-off analysis (Moskowitz Jacobs, Inc., White Plains, NY), Fourscore & five determined who (which populations) and what messages most drive people to purchase. The group most serious about the carbohydrate content of foods (the lower the better) includes the 40 million people, or about 20% of the U.S. adult population, who admit to being on some form of low-carb regimen. The Valen Group, Cincinnati, OH, reports this number to be a bit higher, with about 59 million, or 28% of the U.S. population, following some form of low-carb diet, and about one-third of these people (or 17 million) following a specific plan. So let’s face it, the way low-carb products are positioned now, there is really no reason for consumers to go to the low-carb aisle unless they are serious about lowering their carbohydrate consumption.

Demographically, low-carb consumers, whether strictly adhering to a diet or not, are mostly 30 to 40 years old with higher incomes (>$50,000), who are quite overweight (more than one-third needs to lose 30 pounds or more) and are dedicated dieters (almost half have spent more than seven months on a diet); more than half (52%) have tried Atkins within the last six months. To lose weight, these low-carb followers are incorporating more low-carbohydrate foods (68%), high fiber and high protein foods (38%), eggs (37%), cheese (36%) and sugar free foods (36%) into their diets. They are also eating less bread (81%), cookies (80%), cake (79%), French fries (77%), ice cream (75%), pasta (69%), pretzels (64%), crackers (56%), breakfast cereal (46%), all of which scream opportunity for low-carb versions of these foods. According to, what low-carb consumers are limiting runs parallel with what they say they are buying more of to cut carbs, which is mostly low-carb versions of high carb foods, namely low-carb/high protein nutrition bars (54%), low-carb bread (41%), low-carb ice cream (31%), low-carb chocolate (30%), and low-carb beer (20%).

WHAT: The most powerful message to a person who is currently on a low-carb diet incorporates the statements: “high fiber,” “low carbohydrate” and “helps you lose weight”. The combination of these three statements will increase purchase intent by 82%, according to Fourscore & five. More than “low fat” and “low calorie”, consumers are interested in fiber and carbohydrate content. To non-dieters, fiber is also vitally important, and high protein rates more important than low carbohydrate. In fact, fiber appeals as strongly to men as women, both carb conscious and not carb conscious. Currently, since there are no federally mandated definitions for low-carb, companies are focusing on carbohydrate content and pointing toward losing weight as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Specific ingredients are already impacting selection, which means shoppers have some baseline understanding that fiber and protein, for example, are good for them. Therefore companies can and should start talking more about all of the other inherent health benefits of products, besides carbohydrate content, that contain fibers and proteins (like cardiovascular benefit, cancer prevention, digestive health, etc.). Fourscore & five found that just the mention of “high fiber” or “high protein”, without the associated health benefits, increases consumers’ likelihood of purchase by an average of 10%. Of course, soy protein and fiber both have health claims, and companies need not be afraid to use them. Carb-based foods, especially functional bakery products, need to focus on fibers and the better-for-you carbohydrates.

WHY: Right now, weight loss is the primary motivator for low-carb products, and for good reason since 65% of the U.S. is overweight or obese. According to the Valen Group, weight loss is the most important reason for controlling carbs (65%), with lifestyle being the second most mentioned reason (19%). For the 55 million or so consumers who have been influenced to reduce their carbohydrate consumption, whether they are on a diet or not, the mention of “low carbohydrate” evokes a certain lifestyle and a social community that reflects their latest eating habits. Since you cannot legally say that low-carbohydrate foods actually help you lose weight, marketers are almost overusing the low-carb lifestyle angle, with taglines that don’t have much substance. For example: Atkins “Atkins for Life at Every Meal”, Carb Fit “Delicious and Healthy Food for the Low-carb Lifestyle” and Keto Foods “Live low-carb and eat your favorite foods”.

Certainly convenience, price, and taste play important roles in food choice, but health also plays a significant part as well. The next step will be pinpointing and prioritizing the actual benefits consumers are looking for from low carbohydrate, high fiber, high protein foods. For those people not on a diet, these products can still be made relevant by communicating about energy, and potentially glycemic index (GI) should it (or glycemic load) become the widely accepted context of carbohydrate impact.

Diet, Science & Consumption
When it comes to specific nutrition needs, the available information is pretty confusing, especially when it comes to disease prevention and weight loss. Therefore, more often it’s the life circumstances, like not enough or too much money and time, which really drive us to buy and eat the foods we do. It’s not fair to blame nutritionists because they often have to be on the defense, commenting on the evolutionary process we call science, whereby prematurely exposed clinical results lead to lots of unanswerable questions.
It’s important to realize that many press releases, including those released by prominent journals, hype research findings to excite the public. In a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (June 1992), it was found that in fewer than one-quarter of press releases (of those studied), less than one-quarter of the studies reported limitations, only about half revealed differences between the groups studied, and less than one-quarter disclosed information on industry sponsorship.

Taking this into account, with the two most recent Annals of Internal Medicine publications (Annals of Internal Medicine, May 2004;140(10);769-777; Annals of Internal Medicine, May 2004;140(10):778-785), there was significant dropout and self-directed adherence to the diets (meaning the subjects weren’t watched when eating). For one study, the results definitely support low-carb dieting for the short term, although things to keep in mind include: the high dropout rate, the study only lasted six months, the low-carb dieters took nutritional supplements that the low-carb sample didn’t, and the study was funded by the Atkins Foundation. Furthermore, the participants were all overweight and hyperlipidemic, which means if you are neither, you really can’t extrapolate the data to directly apply to you. The good news was that the low-carb group lost significantly more weight than the low-fat dieters (21 lbs vs. 10 lbs) and had significantly better serum triglyceride HDL levels.

In the other study, all 132 subjects were obese (meaning that this information cannot be directly extrapolated for those who want to “lose a few”), and although the low-carb dieters lost more, the difference wasn’t significant; the weight loss averaged 11 lbs. for the low-carb dieters after one year. However, these studies do make for positive press for low-carbohydrate diets and have garnered support. In fact, according to a May 18th press release issued by the American College of Physicians, the esteemed, very vocal Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard Medical School expressed his support for low-carb diets, stating, “We can no longer dismiss very low-carbohydrate diets…and [can encourage] overweight patients to experiment with reduced carbohydrate diets as long as they emphasize healthy sources of fat and protein and incorporate regular physical activity.”

Nutritionists are far from thrilled that low-carb dieting has overwhelmingly become the nation’s favorite diet, since it goes against all the traditional dieting virtues, namely low fat/high carbohydrate. What many people don’t realize is that the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Institute of Medicine (IOM), and supporting organizations like the American Dietetic Association (ADA), recommend that adults get a daily intake of 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates to reduce risk of heart disease and some cancers; the bulk of the carbohydrate coming from fiber (25 grams for women and 38 grams for men, from fruits, vegetables and whole grains). However, at face value, the sheer magnitude of 1300 carbohydrate calories, or 325 grams of carbohydrates daily (65% of a 2000 calorie diet) sounds preposterous and totally unreasonable compared to the Atkins diet, where the initial induction phase limits carbohydrate intake to 20 grams, or roughly the equivalent of one slice of bread or a 4-oz. yogurt or one cup of jarred pasta sauce or one-eighth of a cup of rice for an entire day. In reality, Americans consume a diet somewhere in the middle.

Even with the current low-carb onslaught, NPD Group’s Report on Carbohydrate Consumption Patterns has determined that less than 5% of Americans are consuming what can be considered a low-carb diet, and carbohydrate consumption is on the order of 31% of calories! Virtually no one is cutting carbohydrates to the degree that Atkins recommends. Hard to believe is that 74% of people who say they are low-carb dieters are actually consuming carbohydrates in the same amount that the majority of us are eating, which is a whopping 45% of the diet (within the government-recommended range). Furthermore, according to the June 2004 Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, which examined consumption data from the 1999-2000 Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III), we’re getting almost one-third of our carbohydrate intake from simple carbohydrate-containing baked goods (sweets/desserts/breads/rolls/crackers), soft drinks and fruit juices. Really what needs to change is the consumption of better-for-you carbohydrates.

What will make Low-Carb Products Last?
The million-dollar question nowadays is, how long will the low-carb ‘craze’ last? The reality is, low-carb as low-carb has quickly evolved into a formidable trend. There doesn’t seem to be much slowing down right now based on the number of products coming out, the media coverage and clinical studies. However, the low-carb trend will not sustain itself for much longer, as long as the focus is on numbers and carbohydrate content. The only way to make low-carbohydrate products last is through a major marketing shift in product positioning to define products by their benefits (i.e. nutrition), not product attributes (i.e. actual carbohydrate content).

Positioning, as defined in the classic marketing book of the same name (by Reis and Trout), is a term used to reflect cosmetic changes (made in the name, price, or package, but not in the product itself) done for the purpose of “securing a worthwhile prospect in the consumer’s mind.” All it takes is the right skew, or point of view, to shift consumers’ mindsets as to how foods and beverages fit into their lifestyle. This goes back to companies needing to focus on what’s good and better for you in the products by talking about the functional health benefits of the ingredients.

Baked goods, juices and potatoes are three categories that have seen a rapid decline in sales in the past year, but a turnaround can happen as these carbohydrate-based products are repositioned to reflect their nutritional goodness. In determining how to bring consumption back up, these industries realized there wasn’t enough accurate messaging about the health benefits of these staple foods and they’re finally doing something about it. The Potato Board is introducing a $4 million dollar advertising campaign focused around the tagline, “Get skinny on America’s favorite vegetable.” The American Bakers Association and North American Millers Association, which represent 80% of bakers, ingredient suppliers, milling companies and packaging and equipment manufacturers, have come together and plan to spend $4-5 million annually on a public relations campaign with the slogan “Bread. It’s Essential,” which is targeted toward doctors and schools.

What the Future Holds
The good news lies in the fact that there is excellent long-term potential for low-carb products because even after this “craze” has fizzled, we will be left with some good, healthful new products that can be repositioned to reflect their true inherent goodness—not just the fact that they are low in simple carbohydrates. If there is a genuine commitment to making good products that are marketed with messages that elicit sound nutrition, all of the dedication into the development and processing of both ingredients and finished goods will enable an evolution into bigger and better business opportunities in good-for-you foods. In addition, consumers might wake up and realize that they simply don’t need as many simple carbohydrates in their diet. Hopefully the low-carb trend will enable a financial turnaround that will spur organizations to focus their efforts on the real issue: educating consumers of the product health benefits.

The dedicated low-carb grocery and natural food store aisles will soon be overhauled to reflect the next big thing that comes along. However, the products that currently fill those spaces will remain, as long as they taste good. The great products that come out of this craze should live well beyond the years of the low-carb moniker. Instead of being in the low-carb section, these products will be surreptitiously moved back next to their full carb versions, but by that time will have new labels that will be shouting all of the other, formerly less important health benefits that couldn’t fit on the label when low-carb was too important. Labels will be reworded and the graphics will change to reflect why and how these foods are good for you. Soy and fiber will be prominently displayed, touting heart and digestive health. For the most part, the good tasting low-carb products should be able have a life of their own as long as companies do their job of communicating benefits with which consumers can identify. In the long term there may be potential for the food industry to be heralded as having played a key role in helping this overweight country of ours to shed some pounds. But for now, let’s concentrate on this being a fortunate and opportunistic time for exploring, understanding and developing foods and associated communications that fit into a nutrition-based platform.

About the author
Julie Hirsch, P.h.D., is founder and president of Fourscore & five LLC, a scientific marketing firm located in Manville, NJ. Dr. Hirsch has more than 10 years of experience in product development, market research and business development. She can be reached at 908-252-0656; Fax: 908-253-6808; E-mail: [email protected]; Website:

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