The remarkable popularity of the Atkins Diet has had an unprecedented effect on the US food industry. Dismissed by some as a passing phase, low-carb diets are now followed by around 15% of the US population, and many food manufacturers have seized the opportunity to capitalise on this potentially lucrative market, as Philip Fine reports.

There is a two-word prefix that seems to be coming out of every American food manufacturer's new-product department: Low-Carb.

The US is fighting an obesity problem. A staggering (in some cases - literally) 64% of the population is overweight and the number of people carrying more than 100 pounds over their ideal weight has quadrupled in the last 20 years to one in every hundred. The obvious answer to this problem would be to eat less and exercise more, but in fact many Americans are taking an easier route to their private slimline Idaho; a large segment of the population has been trying to fight fat by cutting its carbohydrate intake.

According to a survey by Novartis Consumer Health, 15% of Americans - or 32 million people - are now following high-protein low-carb plans, the most popular being the Atkins Diet. Companies feeding the USA have capitalised on this populous starch-free set, which seems to have gone low-carb crazy. And of course, with so many overweight Americans around, there is plenty of scope to expand this market.

To see the array of products now marketed as 'low carb', log on to SynergyDiet, an online low-carb grocery store that sells hundreds of products they deem low-carb, including those unlikely candidates for a weight-loss regime: bagels, doughnuts, Italian breadcrumbs, fruit spreads and chocolate bars. "It's definitely one of the largest trends driving the industry," said Stephanie Childs, spokesperson for the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA).

While it has hit a gallop this year, the Atkins Diet has been around since 1972. Its followers lose their weight by combining proteins with vegetables and limiting their starches. When carbohydrates are limited, the body breaks down available fat so as to keep the brain supplied with its basic needs. Much of the popularity has come from allowing slimmers to eat some of their favourite high-fat foods, such as butter, cheese and meat, as long as they're eaten with few or no carbohydrates.

Seizing the low-carb opportunity

To make a product with fewer carbohydrates, manufacturers often use Arabic, guar and xanthan gums to add body and use vegetable purees and artificial sweeteners to bring down glucose levels. The latest companies to sport low-carb products have been Sara Lee, which this month launched a new line of low-calorie low-carbohydrate breads; Frito-Lay, which has unveiled Doritos Edge and Tostitos Edge, containing soy proteins and fibre that cut these potato crisps' carbohydrate content by 60%; and Unilever, which has launched Carb Options, an 18-product line, containing low-carb versions of Ragu pasta sauce, Wish-Bone dressing, Lawry's marinades, Lipton tea mixes and Skippy peanut butter. Heinz is about to introduce One Carb Ketchup, containing three grams of carbohydrates fewer per serving than its traditional ketchup, accomplished through a 75% reduction in sugar content.

One of the largest purveyors of low-carb products is - unsurprisingly - Atkins Nutritionals, which is linked to the high priest of low-carb, the late Dr Robert C. Atkins. It expects to see US$100m in sales this year for products such as its popular muffin and bread mixes. Food products from Keto, which makes such things as soy shakes and low-carb frosted flakes, are now available in 7,000 supermarkets across the US.

Retailers are also getting in on the action. Large US supermarket chains such as Kroger and Albertsons are establishing entire low-carb sections. Twenty-store upscale grocery chain, Lunds and Byerly's, has a whole line-up of low-carb baked goods. Supermarket delis are seeing huge runs on rotisserie chicken and all varieties of cheese. Potatoes have been the loser, with sales expecting to remain flat for 2004, according to the US Department of Agriculture. 

Where potatoes lose out, the meat industry wins

The craze has been so strong that products long associated with carbohydrates are trying to show that they too can be part of a high-protein diet. Incredibly, spaghetti maker Prego has launched an advertising campaign that actually foregoes pasta, showing their sauces being poured over chicken. Meanwhile, in the drinks industry, beer, vodka and orange juice makers have also launched low-carb versions of their products.

Fastfood restaurants - to whom the Atkins diet is manna from heaven - have been changing their display boards to squeeze in some low-carb items. Burger King recently introduced the Fire-Grilled Angus Steakburger Wrap and now sells its famous burger with a bunless option. Subway Restaurants offers two Atkins-endorsed choices: a Turkey And Bacon Melt Wrap, and a Chicken Bacon Ranch Wrap. The bread for the wraps is made with wheat gluten, cornstarch, oats, sesame flour and soy protein to reduce the carbohydrates. While McDonald's has not yet introduced low-carb items, it recently decided to post nutritional information in its restaurants, including the number of carbohydrates in a serving. Popular Mexican food restaurant Baja Fresh has come out with steak and chicken dishes that are served with salsa, melted cheese, avocado and salad, with no carbs on the plate. All 523 TGI Friday's restaurants offer Atkins-endorsed dishes, such as Tuscan spinach dip and garlic chicken with mixed vegetables.

These low-carbohydrate diets have been a boon to the meat industry, according to the American Meat Institute, which speaks for producers. "I would say, in general, that our members are pleasantly surprised and pleased at what appears to be a much greater impact that these high-protein dietary trends seem to be having on consumer choices and purchasing frequency of meat and poultry products," said Dan Murphy, AMI's vice president for public affairs. 

Calls for FDA regulation

Many nutritionists, however, have warned that consumers can suffer ill effects from not maintaining the minimum level of carbohydrates needed for the body to function optimally.

There is also the issue of those who fall off the wagon. Frozen Food Institute nutritionist Joy Bauer believes the low-carb craze will stall once people start to see that all this extra meat and cheese will not always lead to weight loss. "People will begin to think everything is legal and they are going to start eating all those extra calories that weren't plugged into the original diet plan," she told the Frozen Food Age magazine. 

However, the trend of low-carb does not yet seem to be slowing down and the federal government is being prompted to take note and regulate to make sure that food sold as low-carb is what the packaging says it is. "One of the biggest challenges is that there exists no FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulations on what constitutes low-carb. Content claims for low-fat, low-cal and low-sugar are defined by the regulator but not low-carb," said the GMA's Childs, whose organisation just petitioned the FDA to work on a definition with her members. She believes the regulator will move quickly on the issue, since it seems to be one that has the attention right now of so many people in the food industry.