Low-Carb Losing Steam? Consumers Say "No Way!"

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carb is losing steam, the Carbohydrate Awareness Council decided to review current statistics to provide insight to the industry and consumers. Their findings? Scientific evidence continues to emerge supporting the efficacy of low-carb diets for weight-loss and consumers continue to feel confident that a low-carb diet can and will help them lose weight.

While some niche retailers are experiencing declines in sales, and some manufacturers are seeing a dip in demand, the consumer remains confident in the low-carb diet and controlled-carb lifestyle.

"A number of things may explain the recent industry pinch," said Regina Schumann, the COO of the Carbohydrate Awareness Council (CAC), "The number of manufacturer's offering foods touted as "low-carb" has increased and major retailers are now dedicating shelf-space to more low-carb products. This is capturing sales that once went to the niche retailers. In addition, consumers are simply getting very savvy that some products are not necessarily appropriate for the weight-loss phases of the low-carb diets."

"We spent considerable time with those attending our industry summit in January," said Dr. Gil Wilshire, MD, President and CSO of the council, "explaining how some of the 'net carb' label claims were unsupported by the science. We also felt it was important to educate consumers about the necessity for a long-term, controlled-carb approach to maintain fat losses once weight loss goals were achieved. Our recommendation at the time was, and remains, to allocate significant marketing efforts toward those consumers who will be following a controlled-carb approach for the long term."

He also added that, "All successful products rely on the time-proven model of brand loyalty and repeat business. Internet chat boards are now a fact of life. Bad buzz about a "low carb" product -- either because it is mis-labeled or a consumer has had a bad experience of one kind or another -- can kill sales rapidly. This ill-will can also spill over to other products of the same brand, regardless of their individual merits."

"Like the Perfect Storm, a number of different forces have collided in recent months," said Bob Cave, CEO of the CAC, "in addition to the other issues mentioned, probably one of the biggest we need to factor in, is that consumers are communicating with each other about their experiences with weight-loss, or lack thereof in ways unimagined ten years ago. They're online posting and chatting and asking each other for help."

With hundreds of online communities and message boards dedicated to low-carb diets, consumers have the ability to quickly communicate with and support each other in their weight-loss efforts. Success stories number in the tens of thousands, are readily available to those just starting a low-carb diet, and often have a common theme: Do not try to re-create your former eating habits as you are starting a low-carb diet. Read labels carefully and eat mostly whole foods as you are losing weight. Eat lots of non-starchy vegetables. Learn healthy eating habits for the long-term and include exercise in your daily routine where ever possible.

The webmaster of one such online community - LowCarbEating.com - and interim-Chair of the Consumer Relations Committee of the CAC, Andrea Mondello recently weighed-in on the issue, "Despite the recent media coverage on confusing low-carb labels, there is NO confusion among educated and experienced low carb dieters about the effectiveness of low carb diets; they know both from personal experience and from reports on the recent results published by Duke University researchers. Low carb works."

She also added, "The danger I see is that consumers who haven't yet started to experience the benefits of a controlled-carb lifestlye will 'throw the baby out with the bath water' - they'll let negative comments about 'low carb' products in the media deter them from getting started. I urge people considering a low carb diet to look at the science and the results being obtained by thousands of others, and make an intelligent decision with their doctor as to what is best for them given their own health situation."

The low/controlled-carb products are just one sector within the larger food and beverage industry. Indicators show that popular low-carb, whole food selections continue to trend upward in consumption. According to the ACNeilsen Strategic Planner (food/drug/mass [excluding Wal-Mart] channels combined), significant increases, over the 52-week period ending 12/27/2003, were seen in the Eggs, Meat Snacks, Nuts, Bacon, Diet Carbonated Beverages, Frozen unprepared Meat/Seafood and Cheese categories. Decreased consumption was noted in the Potatoes, Instant Rice, Cookies, Cereal and White Bread categories.

These trends indicate a tremendous shift in eating habits amongst U.S. consumers - a shift supported by the IFIC Report "U.S. Consumer Attitudes Toward Food Biotechnology" that showed in January 2004, that 55% of those surveyed indicated they were avoiding or eating less sugars/carbs (n=485).

Another issue coming into play is the lack of a definition for label claims that a product is "low-carb". While the industry and consumers await the FDA proposed guidelines to be released for comment, there still exists no standard definition, which leaves label claims suspect in some consumers minds. Tiffany Anthony, founder of another consumer information portal online, CarbHeath.com, weighed in: "I think it's important to note that while the 'low-carb' claims are all well and good, how does a consumer know that what they're buying is truly low in carbs? This of course goes back to proper labeling and a process of certification verifying that a product is low-carb."

The Carbohydrate Awareness Council recently released information about such a certification process and seal. The "Carb-Approved Seal" is a certification mark, available to manufacturer's, ingredient suppliers and restaurants. This allows their products to be verified as being within the designated carbohydrate limits established in the testing protocol. Only those products that meet the strict qualifications are allowed to bear the seal. It is the only certification mark available at this time, and one consumers can trust because there is a testing process, approved by the US Patent and Trade Mark Office, to verify the claims.

"As the seal begins to show up on products and menus, consumers can be confident that the carbohydrate claim is accurate - even in the absence of FDA guidelines," said Ms. Schumann. "Consumers are very savvy today, very cautious about claims, and they want to succeed when they start a low-carb diet. They want to see something that ensures the label claim in accurate, that the product has met some level of testing standards, and that the product is an appropriate selection for the diet phase they are in. The Carb-Approved seal provides that level of comfort."

As low-carb dieting continues to gain in popularity, more and more products will come to market for the consumer to consider. Consumers are demanding accurate, useful product and educational information. Those manufacturer's that provide it will be the ones that succeed long-term.

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Regina Schumann
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