A raft of low-carbohydrate products has hit the market in recent months. Are manufacturers simply meeting consumer demand for products that help them stay healthy, or cynically pandering to a dangerous desire for rapid weight loss, even at the expense of long-term health? What replaces the carbs in these products? And what happens when the fad passes? Bernice Hurst reports.

Another line has been drawn in the perpetually shifting sands of food marketing, another gauntlet thrown down by consumers trying to change their lives by changing what they see as the source of their problems. After all, if you are what you eat, then it follows that to change yourself, you must change your diet.

But you have to wonder if food manufacturers are pandering to the public’s food fads regardless of possible long-term health implications or genuinely and caringly responding to consumer demand.

Another round in the word game
Low-carb products represent one more move in the game of semantics so beloved of manufacturers and retailers. The fact that the term “low-carb” is meaningless doesn’t seem to be an impediment to manufacturers eager to give their customers and shareholders precisely what they want. Unlike salt, sugar and fat, there is no standard acceptable quantity therefore a product cannot be accurately stated to be either high or low in carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates are listed on most packages in the box for Nutrients but there is no way of knowing whether the amount is more or less than we should be consuming. It all depends on whom you ask. And if there are no specific health claims attached, loopholes in both Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and European Union (EU) guidelines can be fairly easily exploited.

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Sue Davies, Principal Policy Adviser for the UK Consumers’ Association, says “there’s no reason why a low carbohydrate claim would be useful to consumers in nutrition terms (and is the reason why it is not included in the list of nutrition claims).”

Carol Harvey, Nutrition Director of Palate Works, specialists in nutrition labelling, goes even further. “Manufacturers are going full guns with lower carb foods simply to take advantage of consumer ignorance of the truth.” Both women agree that people should generally include complex carbohydrates in a healthy, balanced, diet but watch sugar consumption.

And the real point is…
There is considerable cynicism attached to low carbohydrate products, not least amongst manufacturers. H J Heinz is a case in point. In September and October 2003, a gaggle of conflicting and contradictory statements emerged from and about their stable. General manager for ketchup, Justin Lambeth, announced the imminent launch of One Carb Ketchup (75% less than the existing version) and denied that it was a response to a consumer fad.

“What attracted our attention is that it’s more mainstream,” he told Associated Press (AP). “Initially, it was just Atkins but now a lot of folks […] are just watching carbohydrates.”

Tell that to colleague Kenneth Keller, Chief Growth Officer, who announced in September that new low-carb versions of Weight Watchers Smart Ones frozen meals had been devised “to take advantage of the popularity of the Atkins diet.”

How many contradictions are there here, then? Weight Watchers supplying products for people on the Atkins diet? Additions to Heinz’ Ore-Ida frozen potatoes line which has apparently been experiencing “softness”? Potatoes, as any good Atkins fan knows, are anathema to dieters. Perhaps not to Weight Watchers followers, though. No one could possibly accuse Heinz of not covering all the bases, offering products for every conceivable target market and doing its very very best to make profits for its shareholders.

Passing the taste test
One of the more ingenuous comments made about Heinz’ new product came from an American website which specialises in commenting on what’s happening in the food and grocery industries. Stressing that the new product’s goal would be “meeting demand” for products with low carbohydrate content, the editor went on to say that one of the things his wife hated most while on the Atkins Diet was “the restriction on ketchup. If it tastes like real ketchup, this will make her happy.”

When asked how the carbohydrate reduction was achieved, Senior Manager for Marketing Public Relations, Robin Teet, explained that Heinz’ One Carb Ketchup contains 75% less sugar which had been replaced with sucralose to achieve “a comparable thick, rich taste”.

Which raises the question of just what is replacing the eliminated carbohydrates. As we are all too well aware, trans fats were devised to replace saturated animal fats. Now that it has been established that they are at least as unhealthy, manufacturers are struggling to find an acceptable way to replace them in their turn.

Carol Harvey believes that low-carb lines are both unnecessary and potentially unhealthy. “To make a product that shaves a few grams of carbohydrate off something that already has a fairly insignificant amount is nutritionally absurd.”

How much change is necessary?
Are standard products just having their marketing messages tweaked or are the products themselves undergoing change? Are there, in fact, new products being developed and distributed at high speed to meet consumer demand? What are the changes being made? Is the object to make the product taste, look and feel the same while containing lower levels of what consumers want to avoid eating? Will reducing carbohydrate content result in increasing quantities of artificial, synthetic additives? What effect will it have to eat them in quantity over a long period? And what will happen to low-carb products when the Atkins fad passes?

Simply exchanging sugar for sucralose or some other synthetic substitute, and reducing calories as well as carbohydrates, paves the way for product re-launches the instant this particular bandwagon has rolled on by. No fools in these marketing departments. Hain Celestial Group is introducing its new Carb Fit range of “all natural low-carb foods” into existing brands to “help communicate the Carb Fit product value and taste to consumers currently purchasing these national natural brands”. Or to prepare for quietly re-naming them when the consumer fixation with low-carb diets is over?

Unless new products have been genuinely developed, the marketing message will disappear overnight when sales begin to sag. Manufacturers know full well that a percentage of what they get on the shelves at the beginning of the fiscal year will have disappeared before the end of that same year. The history of the food industry is littered with tales of products that just didn’t cut it. The low-carbohydrate category may, sooner or later, become the biggest group of products in that portfolio.