Low carb means high profits for food giants

By Michele Simon


Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 2022


With two-thirds of the nation's population now overweight, millions of Americans are desperate to try anything to shed excess pounds.


The latest trend in weight-loss mania is high-protein, low-carbohydrate dieting. While we have the late Dr. Robert Atkins to blame for popularizing the concept in the 1970s, plenty of enormously successful me-too books have followed in recent years. A recent survey found as many as 48 percent of Americans are cutting back on carbs or plan to go on a low-carb diet in the next year.


Now, some of the heaviest hitters in the food industry are standing up and taking notice. That's because there are big bucks to be made by cashing in on a trend that's gone way beyond the diet-fad stage. The Nutrition Business Journal estimates that sales of low-carb foods totaled $1.4 billion in 2003 and could eventually reach $3 billion. Other forecasts are even more optimistic, projecting sales of $30 billion by 2004.


The processed food industry is churning out low-carb products by the truckload, introducing more than 600 new items last year alone. Apparently, no product is too absurd to go low carb: Everything from pasta to ketchup to ice cream is being reformulated and re-introduced. Even beer companies are fighting over whose light brew contains fewer carbs.


Supermarkets are setting aside entire low-carb aisles, and low-carb specialty stores are cropping up everywhere -- even in the Bay Area, land of crunchy granola and gourmet bread. Castus Low Carb Superstores has two local shops and plans to open 5,000 franchises around the world by 2008. And 7-Eleven has partnered with Atkins Nutritionals, displaying its "Low-Carb Revolution" banners, and selling 50 brands of chocolate bars, cookies and shakes.


Because going low-carb won't stop America's obsession with eating out, restaurants, especially fast-food chains, are also jumping on the bandwagon. Burger King, for example, will begin selling bunless burgers, and Donatos Pizza is offering a "NoDough" pie with a crust made from high-protein soy crumbles. Even more astonishing are these junk-food purveyors’ efforts to spin their menu innovations as a response to consumer demand for "healthier options."


This week, LowCarbiz is hosting the first national low-carb business summit in Denver. Among the hundreds attending are representatives from such food giants as Frito-Lay and General Mills, and retailers such as Wal-Mart. Topics up for discussion include "The Low-Carb Economy: Understanding Just How Large and Dynamic the Industry Really Is," "Opportunities and Risks in the Low- Carb Industry," and my personal favorite, "The Scientific Case AGAINST Low Carb: Know What the Industry's Detractors Are Saying and How to Respond."


But beyond the low-carb hype, consumers are being sold nothing more than savvily marketed snake oil. Many nutrition and health experts agree that high- protein diets are not only dubious as a long-term approach to weight loss, but also potentially dangerous. That's why no major health-care organization has embraced them, and why they've been publicly denounced by both the American Dietetic Association and the American Heart Association.


To maintain their competitive edge, food makers must continually come up with new products and marketing gimmicks. The "low-carb revolution" represents an opportunity similar to the low-fat diet craze of the 1980s and 1990s, in which other kinds of highly processed foods were touted as "the answer" to our expanding waistlines. Then, years later, we learned that eating SnackWells didn't result in weight loss after all. How long will it take before we realize that eating low-carb cookies won't either?


The Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Source sensibly tells us that many foods rich in whole-grain carbohydrates are good sources of essential vitamins and minerals and recommends that "whenever possible, replace highly processed grains, cereals, and sugars with minimally processed whole-grain products." In other words, eat brown rice and other whole grains in their natural state. But that's not the message the processed food industry wants you to hear, because that won't sell any highly priced, "value-added" products.


Michele Simon is a lawyer and founder and director of the Center for Informed Food Choices (www.informedeating.org), a nonprofit based in Oakland that educates about the politics of food.