As the popularity of strict low-carbohydrate diets appears to be in decline, a more moderate alternative has been building in the consumer consciousness. Already popular in Australia, the Glycemic Index (GI) is currently sweeping the UK and has the US firmly in its sights. With awareness of GI expected to grow even further over the next few years, can manufacturers afford to ignore it? Kate Barker reports.

As evidence mounts that the popularity of low-carbohydrate diets has passed its peak, a more moderate approach to low-carb eating has been hitting the headlines. The Glycemic Index (GI), which rates carbohydrates according to their immediate effect on blood glucose (blood sugar) levels, has been billed as a lifestyle rather than a diet, helping consumers lose weight and stay healthy. Low GI foods result in a smaller rise in blood glucose levels after meals, and can help people lose weight and improve the body's sensitivity to insulin.

Foods with a high GI, such as white bread, provide an almost instantaneous sugar hit. However, the subsequent 'come down' makes people crave one more sugar boost and often leads to the consumption of another snack high in sugar. This yo-yo effect makes the body tired and often promotes feelings of lethargy in people. Low GI foods provide a slow, steady stream of energy throughout the day avoiding peaks in blood sugar levels, tiredness or constant snacking to keep energy up.

Already popular in Australia, the GI trend is now sweeping the UK and, according to a just-food.com research report, looks set to appeal to healthy eaters in Germany and other European countries where people take a more natural and balanced approach to eating; countries where strict low-carb diets such as Atkins have never really taken off.

So it seems that the low-carb trend is far from dying out, but rather it has been adapted to form a more moderate and seemingly healthier approach that consumers seem more willing to adopt.

Surge in interest

One of the world's leading authorities on the glycemic index, Professor Jennie Brand-Miller, who has written a number of GI diet books and related pocket books on diabetes, heart disease and weight reduction, told just-food that she has noticed a surge in interest in her work over recent months and is more than happy with this growing awareness.

"I think a sensible low GI diet is a vehicle to a balanced healthy diet - talking about blood sugars appeals to a lot of people while talking about whole grains and fibre turns a lot of people off. I'm pleased there's a surge in interest in the GI," she said.

"I'm not sure why the surge has occurred now and not some other time, but it has been building steadily for years. Perhaps one or two papers published recently in journals like the Lancet have made a big impact. It has persuaded some of the sceptics that there is something in the GI after all," she added.

Tesco leads the way

In the UK, GI is a relatively new concept to consumers, but in Australia the GI label, created by the University of Sydney, Diabetes Australia and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, was first used on food packaging in May 2002 and the majority of consumers are now not only aware of the term GI but can explain its relationship with blood sugar and weight management, according to just-food.com's report.

In the UK, the glycemic index has only really made it into the public consciousness this year, helped by extensive media coverage during the traditional slimming month of January. The way is being forged by supermarket leader Tesco, which in June 2004 announced that it would introduce new labels ranking a food product according to its glycemic index. The company has billed the GI as a "more moderate alternative to the Atkins Diet". Working with food scientists at Oxford Brookes University, Tesco initially tested 50 products including bread, pasta, ready meals and cereals. The supermarket giant is clearly committed long-term to the GI diet as it aims to have 1,000 low or medium GI products available in stores by the end of 2005.

Tesco has also published, in conjunction with Virgin Books, its own GI Guide, which includes an explanation of the glycemic index, advice on selecting the right foods, recipes and food lists, information on understanding food labels, and tips on exercising.

Marks & Spencer introduced a GI logo on some of its healthy eating "count on us…" products at the start of 2005. Experts at Marks & Spencer spent 12 months developing 55 new recipes, overhauling the packaging for the range and improving existing dishes. Waitrose, meanwhile, says it is currently assessing new ways of communicating the GI concept to its customers. A fact sheet is available online and in stores, illustrating how to combine high, low and medium GI foods to make a meal.

Atkins adjusts strategy amid GI popularity

The decline in popularity of the Atkins Diet has been well publicised. The UK unit of Atkins Nutritionals called in the administrators last month, hit by disappointing sales of its diet foods. Meanwhile, in the US, research from The NPD Group showed that 4.6% of Americans were following a reduced-carbohydrate diet in September, compared to 9% in January 2005.

Many food manufacturers invested heavily in low-carb diets such as Atkins, and some are now looking for a way to maintain sales now the popularity of the diet may be fading. Atkins Nutritionals itself is apparently adjusting its labelling to take advantage of the popularity of the glycemic index by altering its labelling to show a "net Atkins count" rather than its traditional "net carbs" measurement. The company says the new method of rating foods more accurately measures a person's blood sugar response to foods and is more precise than the net carbs method.

Carblife, a UK company that sells online a range of low-carb products made by companies such as Diet Line, Carbophobia, Atkins and Go Lower, has admitted that GI is the next logical step for the website and the industry in general. Carblife is currently assessing a range of low GI and GL products to create a 'GI corner' on the site.

Awareness set to grow

"I think it is a natural step from a diet to a lifestyle. Our theory is that low-carb diets get you to the weight you want to be and low GI enables you to maintain the weight loss," says Tony Warden, who runs the site.

While the UK leads the US in terms of GI awareness at the moment, it is expected that the GI concept will attract greater attention on both sides of the Atlantic as consumers pay a closer attention to the relationship between nutrition and health. In 2004, GI meant very little to the majority of UK and US consumers; however, by 2010 it is predicted that 66% of US consumers and 75% of UK consumers will be aware of GI (but not necessarily adopting a low GI lifestyle) and its relation to blood sugar levels and weight management, according to just-food.com's research. In the UK, this awareness will be fuelled primarily by Tesco's five-year plan to educate consumers about GI. In the US, retailers are expected to follow Tesco's lead.

So although the popularity of strict low-carb diets may be passed its peak, it is clear that carb consciousness remains, albeit in the form of a more moderate approach, namely the glycemic index. With awareness of GI expected to grow even further over the next few years, manufacturers may not want to miss out on the opportunities this presents.

To find out more, or to buy the report, Global market review of the GI-diets industry with forecasts to 2010, click here.