The low-carbohydrate phenomenon that has swept the Western world in the past two years represents a sea change in dietary habits, according to an industry analyst.
"Low-carb diets have been around for 30 years despite the fact the medical establishment has been saying all along that it?s a bad idea," said Joe Marra, executive director of The Natural Marketing Institute, a Pennsylvania-based natural products consultancy. "Finally there are signs showing that Dr Robert Atkins (the cardiologist who publicised the low-carb diet in the early 1970s) and others have been right about carbohydrate intake. The whole food pyramid was against him for a long time but that is being questioned now, too. I think the science is going to prove that Atkins was ahead of his time."
Sales of French fries have dropped by a giant ten per cent in the US in the past year alone (although anti-French sentiment surrounding the Iraq war could have accounted for some of that) while an estimated three million Brits are following the now-famous Atkins diet, or variants thereof. In one Detroit restaurant, sandwiches that replace bread with lettuce leaves are outselling regular bread-based offerings. Similar stories and statistics abound in most Western countries.
New Products Abound
At the recent Natural Products Expo East trade show in Washington, low-carb products were conspicuous by their near-ubiquity. Given the relative youth of the sector, formulation and taste issues remain, but the movement of major food conglomerates into the area illustrates how lucrative low carbohydrate is right now.
"The big players—the Pepsis, the Nestl?s, the Krafts of this world—all have low-carb initiatives because they recognise the strength of this trend," said Marra.
The plethora of new products flooding onto the market, and the zeal with which they are being consumed, especially in the US, apparently vindicate this view. Low-carb alternatives for most baked foods and other typically high-carb staples such as pasta and snack bars have proliferated in the past three years as have other products such as low-carb beer and tomato sauce.
At the retail end, more than 200 low-carb specialty stores are up and running in the US while a California-based franchise aims to establish 5,000 stores in the next five years.
Companies like California-based Ketogenics have been producing low-carb foods for more than six years and are buoyed by the new privileged status of low-carbs foods. Having been at it longer than most, Ketogenics has had time to develop its all-important taste profiles, its marketing coordinator, Florence Sherry said. "The worry has always been that as soon as you take out the carbs, you take out the taste. We?d like to think we?ve gotten around that problem. People know us as a trusted low-carb brand with great taste."
Is Atkins Vindicated?
But do low-carb foods and diets stand up nutritionally? Many government health and food agencies as well as nutrition experts have come down against low-carb eating, citing it as a cause of a range of ailments from cancer to diabetes to osteoporosis.
"Low-carb eating can upset the acidity of the blood that can cause lethargy," said Sarah Schenker, a dietician at the British Nutrition Foundation. "Other side effects include bad breath and constipation."
Mike Croghan, global business director of nutrition at National Starch, believes it is the kind of carbohydrates consumed and in what proportion to other dietary inputs that needs to be understood more clearly. "The US Department of Agriculture is currently re-modelling its traditional food guide pyramid. We believe the established pyramid may eventually be modified to include an additional layer that divides carbohydrates into ?better-for-you? and ?not-so-good-for-you?, or perhaps unrefined and refined," he noted. "Not-so-good-for-you foods can improve their nutritional profile while still delivering the all-important enjoyable eating experience. Some carbohydrate-rich foods may simply require partial reformulation to control their digestion profile."
He added: "The science behind carbohydrate nutrition is continuing to evolve and, as it develops, so do the possibilities for food manufacturers. The role of carbs is not as black-and-white as once thought—it may be that future recommendations not only distinguish between ?good? and ?bad?, but also re-evaluate daily carbohydrate requirements."
In the meantime, the market shows no signs of slowing down. As Marra noted: "Not long ago the only place you could find low-carb products was in a health food store. Now they are in every mainstream food outlet."