Americans Sticking With Carbs

The public's fascination with low-carbohydrate diets has yet to remove the luster from pies, potatoes and other high-carb foods.

Some makers of these products watched with interest, but not deep concern, as new low-carb foods - special breads, salad dressings, cereals and candies - grabbed a lot of attention at the Food Marketing Institute's recent trade show.

People like comfort food and will keep eating cake and pie for dessert, even while watching the carbs in other parts of their diet, said Matt Hall, a Sara Lee spokesman.

"You could call it maybe mental health," said Hall, who stood near his company's display of noncarb-reduced baked goods. The attitude is, "I've worked really hard; I deserve something."

The low-carb diet trend seems to have lots of followers. In a survey last month, 12 percent of adults telephoned at random said they were on a low-carb diet while an additional 32 percent said they were making attempts to restrict their carbohydrates, said Larry Shiman of Opinion Dynamics of Cambridge, Mass.

Shiman presented his firm's data at a conference in Washington that was organized by LowCarbiz, a trade publication.

Low-carb foods are a small fraction of the overall market, and promoters of higher-carb products expect their sales to be strong.

Sara Lee's noncarb-reduced products are getting a piece of the pie.

Some new offerings have seen double-digit increases in sales and buyers include people who are watching their carbs, Hall said. Unless low-carb shoppers are sticking to a strict diet, "they are not divorcing themselves from indulgent products," he said.

Sales of other high-carb staples also are growing.

Shoppers bought about 4.6 billion pounds of potatoes in 2003, 2.6 percent more than 2002, said Tim O'Connor, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Potato Board, a Denver-based association of growers and handlers.

All is not good for potatoes, however. French fry sales have been soft, reflecting a consumer aversion to fats as well as carbohydrates. But they, too, are beginning to recover, O'Conner said.

In the 1990s, food companies saw opportunity in low-fat diets and saturated the market with new low-fat or no-fat products. People who ate them often were not paying a lot of attention to calories.

"The problem is, consumers don't want to eat less calories, they just want to eat different foods that somehow magically they will lose weight on," said Frank Muir, president and chief executive officer of the Idaho Potato Commission, a state agency that promotes the crop.

Low-carb fans might find low-fat history repeating itself, Muir said.

"All the manufacturers, they are launching all these new food products," he said. "What that's telling you is, people are going to eat a whole lot of calories again."

The history of the low-fat diet also indicates that if people sour on low carbs, piemakers and fry cooks will still find some people shying from their products, Shiman said.

"Even though the idea of a low-fat diet is not nearly as in vogue as it once was, low-fat is part of our consciousness," he said. "I think something similar might happen with the low-carb diet."

Demand for new low-carb foods is still strong, with no other big diet trend on the horizon, said Gus Valen, chief executive officer of The Valen Group, a Cincinnati-based marketing consultant firm.

By Ira Dreyfuss
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