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The Great Low-Carb Debate

April 23, 2008

5 Min Read
The Great Low-Carb Debate

Are naturals retailers who sell low-carb foods harming the industry?

In the current debate over low-carb products, naturals industry veterans see shades of previous skirmishes—the cane sugar wars, the hate mail when meat cases were installed in formerly vegetarian markets.

But meat—expensive, perishable and requiring investment in butchers and display cases—is a different ball of wax from sugarless baking mixes. The relatively small risk and investment required to attract the surging low-carb marketplace seems worth the trouble to many natural grocers.

Is low-carbing a curse or a competitive advantage? Should you stock pork rinds, faux potatoes or Splenda? Retailers may not have the answers to these and other questions, but they?re sure asking them—and often arguing about them. Some aren?t allowing such things in their stores; others are opening new locations dedicated to them.

?These are necessary discussions,? says Jay Jacobowitz of Retail Insights, a consultancy based in Brattleboro, Vt. ?I really feel it is getting right at the heart of who we are as an industry.?

At the National Nutritional Foods Association?s conference last summer, Jacobowitz took aim at the naturals industry for compromising its ?moral high ground in health care? by stocking products with known harmful ingredients like trans fats. ?Fad-driven profits will fade, and will impair the industry?s ability to grow beyond its current customer base.?

Some retailers disagree. Nature?s Way in Garden City, Kan., started carrying Atkins products because customers asked for them. ?I see nothing wrong with it,? Janice Olson, buyer at Nature?s Way, says of the Atkins diet. ?We have a very strong clientele for the low-carb foods. They?re getting results with them. They?re happy. I personally do good on it. I really don?t see any problems with it.?

The store in Garden City, four and a half hours from Wichita, serves a 100-mile radius of western Kansas and the panhandle of Oklahoma. Soaring demand for low-carb products has made things tougher for small retailers, Olson says. ?It?s harder for us to order direct,? she says. ?With some suppliers, we have to order in larger quantities to keep their product in. We try to stay aggressive in ordering.? The reward: happy customers and repeat sales. Customers report that the extra protein that low-carb diets require keeps them feeling satisfied longer and gives them energy they haven?t found on other diet plans. ?Some of the sweeteners they?re using, I?m not too keen on,? Olson says. On the other hand, ?We just got the Atkins ice cream and oh, my God, it is so good.?

The Hartman Group of Bellevue, Wash., found that many consumers—as many as 67 percent of respondents—eat low-carb without even realizing it; they don?t use the term, but readily tell you they?ve cut out sodas or bread. They?re more likely to pick up products that are not marketed specifically as ?diet? foods.

The 4 percent of adults who adopt low-carb for rapid weight loss are most likely to fall off within three months, the typical attrition rate for any commercial weight-loss plan, the Hartman study found. While they?re on the diet, these consumers buy lots of lower-carb or lower-fat versions of things they?ve eaten all along, like energy bars or barbeque sauce. They?re the reason Naples, N.Y.-based Productscan counts more than 800 new low-carb products in the last two years.

More than half of American adults are trying to lose weight, says Joe Marra of The Natural Marketing Institute in Harleysville, Pa. The percentage of folks who claim to be on a low-carb diet rose from 17 percent in 2002 to 25 percent in 2003. ?I make that roughly 23.3 million men and 28.5 million women,? Marra says. ?That?s a lot of people.?

Marra?s lost weight on a hunter-gatherer diet: meat and cheese, lots of fruits and vegetables, not much grain. ?Fat is my friend,? he says philosophically. ?Fat makes things taste good. Humans have only been farmers for 7,000 years.?

Wild Oats Natural Markets announced in October that it planned to expand its selection of low-carb foods. The Boulder, Colo., natural grocery also produced a low-carb shopping guide, featuring about 150 foods that fit the diet, from processed foods to fish, almond flour, soy and broccoli.

That kind of diplomacy appeals to Dan Chapman, owner of Sunrise Health Foods in Flossmoor, Ill. When a customer comes in looking for low-carb items, ?If we don?t stock them, it?s the end of the conversation,? he says. But by meeting those customers? initial needs, Sunrise can extend the conversation to supplements, the juice bar, natural meat and organic produce.

Supplements have been a profitable addition to the shopping carts of many Sunrise low-carb patrons. A lot of Atkins dieters ?aren?t even on a multivitamin, or if they are, they?re on Centrum, like the rest of the world,? Chapman says. Some people just want the products they?ve read about, but others are open to products that balance blood sugar and support weight loss, cleansing products, nutrients and essential fatty acids. ?We try to be conscious of where that customer is at,? he says.

Rachell Hall, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based author of a low-carb cookbook called The 3-2 Gourmet (NTKD Publishing, 2003), agrees. ?A lot of people have been eating this way for a long time,? she says. Her book is based on a plan developed by Phoenix fitness expert Mack Newton, who allows three food groups?fresh meat, green vegetables and fresh fruit?and two beverages, fruit juice and water.

Hall, who says she lost 30 pounds on the 3-2 diet, advocates a European style of cooking, using ?fresh foods with great flavor, instead of packaged food.? She is launching a line of herb and spice blends called Protein Cuisine that enable time-pressed cooks to create dishes from ?real food—not masked with salt and sugar. We don?t have to sacrifice flavor for convenience.?

As for Jacobowitz, he calls on the industry to ?reaffirm its commitment to quality? and sell only products that promote health with credible ingredients—no dicey sweeteners, no lurking trans fats.

After decades of watching skirmishes erupt in the food wars, he has called a truce at the dinner table. ?I now eat whatever I want to eat,? he says, ?and try to enjoy it.?

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 1/p. 24, 30

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