Got the low-carb low-sales blues? Then just wait till the glycemic index takes hold. ?It?s going to be huge, very soon,? says food-marketing analyst Phil Lempert. The index, a measure of how quickly a carbohydrate converts to glucose in the bloodstream, is already popular in Europe, Asia and Australia, where the term is nearly as common as low-fat or low-carb are here.
The index was created to help diabetics, who must carefully monitor their blood sugar levels. All foods on the GI are measured against pure glucose, which has a rating of 100. Anything below 55 is considered low; 56 to 69 is moderate and 70 or above is high. With carbohydrates released more slowly into the bloodstream, sugar spikes and crashes are minimized. Those who support the theory say a more stable level of sugar in the blood means fewer cravings, a more sustained sense of fullness and, eventually, weight loss or maintenance.
Like low-carb, a low-GI diet often incorporates fat and protein, but at more moderate levels, because they slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream. Many see low glycemic as a sensible compromise for those fed up with pared-down eating plans like Atkins or even the early stages of South Beach.
?It?s not so much low carb as right carb,? says Roberta Anding, a clinical nutritionist and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. ?It?s generally whole grains, foods with more fiber, and most fruits and vegetables.?
Don Montuori, acquisitions editor at Packaged Facts, a market research company in New York, thinks this eating approach shows promise. ?My sense is that it is going to continue to catch on, as more consumers become familiar with this diet concept,? he says. The transition will be slow but steady, he adds. ?Low glycemic, of course, also dovetails with both low-sugar and whole-grain trends.? He points out that the new federal food pyramid emphasizes whole grains, and a low-glycemic rating will make those grains even more appealing. In the four weeks ending March 19, sales of whole-grain products increased 7 percent over the same period a year earlier in mass market, according to ACNielsen. Sales of low-sugar products increased 11.3 percent.
The heart of the matter
If Montuori?s right, and consumers embrace the GI, they?ll discover benefits beyond their initial weight loss. It also promises to help dieters keep weight off longer. A Harvard University study published in the November 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that dieters on a low-GI plan were less hungry and had higher metabolisms than those on a low-fat diet, which could result in better long-term adherence to the diet.
What?s more, the low-glycemic diet has been shown to be effective against the advancement of cardiovascular disease. A study published in the May issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a low-GI approach reduced triglyceride levels more than a low-calorie, low-fat diet did. An August 2004 report in the same journal highlighted a decrease in bad LDL cholesterol after 10 weeks on a low-GI diet, compared with control subjects on a high-GI diet. Other researchers have found less robust results. Still, many nutritionists believe a low-GI approach is best for preventing heart disease.
?One of the other risk factors for heart disease is the inflammatory response,? says Anding, ?which can be blunted by eating fresh fruits and vegetables, with all their polyphenols and antioxidants, which you?re not necessarily doing on something like the Atkins diet.?
A low-GI eating regimen seems to ward off other chronic diseases. ?There were a couple big studies—epidemiological studies—taking a look at disease risk,? Anding says. ?People who eat diets with the highest glycemic index have the greatest risk of hypertension, diabetes and certain forms of cancer. People who eat lower on the glycemic index have lower risk.?
In January, the American Journal of Epidemiology published a study of more than 78,000 women that showed that those who ate a high-glycemic diet also had a greater risk of certain types of stroke, especially when they were overweight, than did those who followed a low-GI plan.
A study published last month in the journal Gut found that ?a high intake of carbohydrate, [or products high in] glycemic load and glycemic index increases the risk of symptomatic gallstone disease in men.?
Energy and trends that last
With all these health benefits, it seems that Lempert?s assessment—?It?s going to be huge, very soon?—may be right on the money. But some analysts find that thinking a little over the top. ?I don?t think the mainstream is ready for GI yet,? says Tom Vierhile, director of Naples, N.Y.-based market research firm Productscan Online. ?I think the entire concept is going to require a lot of consumer education. Unless the government gets out there and spends a lot of money against it—or a diet book guru has a multimillion book seller with a diet based on GI?I just can?t see this thing going nuts in the near term.?
Anding admits it does get confusing when books and experts start differentiating between glycemic index and glycemic load (see sidebar below). That?s why she would prefer nutritionists not get into the details of the GI with nonscientists. ?[Talk about it as] foods closer to the way they came out of the ground—it?s easier for people to understand than a table of numbers. Talk about food in its most basic form—unrefined, unprocessed,? she says.
Lempert notes that potential blockbuster books about GI are already in the pipeline, and that many food companies, big and small, are already listing GI ratings on their packaging. In 2002, 25 low-glycemic products were launched in the United States. In 2004, 175 new SKUs came on the market. As manufacturers introduce products, consumer awareness increases—or perhaps it?s the other way around. As many as 33 percent of consumers have heard the term glycemic index, reports Harleysville, Pa.-based The Natural Marketing Institute. And 25 percent of consumers are adding foods to their diet that keep their blood sugar stable. It?s likely that among health-conscious naturals consumers, those figures are even higher. ?The big question,? Vierhile says, ?is what the major food and beverage makers do. Right now, they seem content to ? participate with products aimed at the health/natural sector.?
La Jolla, Calif.-based Kashi is one example of that, with plans to unveil its GoLean Rolls with ?optimized glycemic response? later this year. The bars will incorporate whole grains, nuts and low-glycemic carbs ?to deliver a steady stream of energy, helping you avoid sugar spikes and crashes,? according to draft package labeling. ?We?re not certain of what the final nutrition facts will be,? says Jennifer De Laura, a spokeswoman for Kashi. Sale samples introduced earlier this year came in candy-bar flavors like Chocolate Turtle and Caramel Peanut, but also packed 12 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber in each bar.
Kraft promotes its Balance Bar with low-glycemic labeling and the tag line ?Energy that Lasts.? Depending on flavor, Balance Bars rank anywhere from 25-35 on the GI index. Solo GI, a Canadian company, also offers bars that promise to skirt the peak-crash-craving cycle.
In Europe, though, low GI has moved far beyond bars. In the United Kingdom, supermarket chain Marks & Spencer offers Count on Us packaged meal solutions with GI labeling.
Mainstream U.S. retailers are beginning to incorporate that concept. Northern California Safeways, along with Meijer and Harris Teeter, sell Savvy Faire, a line of frozen gourmet meals with ingredients such as olive oil, hazelnuts, Asiago cheese and pine nuts—but nothing ranks higher than 55 on the glycemic index.
Profiling for profit
As promising as low-glycemic products are, smart retailers will assess their stores? demographics—not just their region?s—before they replace every low-carb SKU with its low-GI equivalent, says Libby Paul, senior vice president of marketing at Spectra Marketing in Chicago.
Research conducted by Spectra and Bellevue, Wash.-based The Hartman Group found that as age increases, so does the propensity for obesity and overweight. At age 40, 57 percent of consumers strongly agree that they ?eat what tastes good regardless of nutrition.? By age 59, that segment drops to 44 percent. Both Hartman and NMI found income to be inversly proportional to obesity If you don?t have a lot of consumers who fit this profile, think carefully before bringing in specially labeled GI foods. Of course, naturals consumers are likely to be buying inherently low-GI foods—fruits, vegetables and whole grains—anyway.
As for manufacturers, they should remember one overriding principle, says Alice Fawver, senior vice president of marketing at ACNielsen U.S.: ?Taste still trumps health when it comes to food.?
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 7/p. 18, 26-27