Low Carb Craze: Diet wreaking havoc on grain sector

by Suzi Fraser Dominy
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Currently 64.5% of adult Americans are overweight — that’s 127 million people. Sixty million of these are considered obese, 9 million severely obese and the numbers are rising steadily. Americans are not the only ones who are getting fatter: one-third of western European consumers are now overweight and by 2006 that figure is forecast to increase to almost half. Similarly, around 7.3 million adult Australians are overweight or obese.

These statistics present a weighty problem for the grain chain as, in an effort to trim waistlines, an estimated 30 to 40 million people worldwide have turned from the traditional method of reducing calories, to reducing carbohydrates instead.

In the U.S., data released by marketing information company, ACNielsen, confirm that low-carbohydrate diets are hurting sales of grain-based foods. Overall dollar sales of bread fell 0.8% in the 52 weeks ending Dec. 27, 2003 and unit volume declined 2.5% from the previous year. Instant rice, cookies, cereal, bulk and packaged rice and dry pasta also experienced declines in both unit volume and dollar sales.

Numbers like these have provoked strong reaction from grain groups around the world, who have boosted their marketing and education efforts with the launch of remarkably similar initiatives in recent months to counter the claims of low carb promoters and to support flour sales.

In the U.S., the Wheat Foods Council recently announced plans for "The Great Grain Campaign," a communication program to promote positive science and research on carbohydrates.

The North American Millers’ Association (NAMA) said in April that it would work with the American Bakers Association to form the Foundation for the Advancement of Grain-Based Foods, which will run independent of either the ABA or NAMA and coordinate the national public relations campaign promoting the health benefits of bread, rolls and other grain-based foods. The funding for the foundation will be on a voluntary basis, with millers and bakers each expected to contribute in excess of $1.5 million a year. NAMA is encouraging millers to commit U.S.1 cent per hundredweight (U.S.1 cent per 45 kg) of flour milled; ABA is asking bakers to donate 2.5 cents per cwt of flour used.

"There is nothing more concerning [to the milling industry] than the anticarbohydrate attack on grain-based foods," Charles B. Stout, president of Milner Milling, Inc. and Pendleton Flour Mills, said in his keynote speech at the International Association of Operative Millers’ annual meeting this May. "We can’t let the image of bread slip any further. Now is the time to invest in the industry’s future," he said.

Stout said he hopes the grain industry sees the same success that other food industries — such as pork, eggs and milk — have had with their promotional campaigns to confront nutritional attacks and reverse a negative consumption trend.

"The flour milling industry has lost 100 million cwt (4.5 million tonnes) of [flour] production in the six years since per capita consumption peaked," John Gillcrist, chairman of NAMA, and president of Bartlett Milling Co. said. "That is over U.S.$100 million in lost margin contribution. For bakers, the losses have been in the many hundreds of millions of dollars."
A.B.A. Chairman Gary J. Prince said the campaign won’t attack any particular diet, but will speak to the benefits of bread and grain-based foods in the diet. The campaign is slated to begin by fall.

Alexander Waugh, director general of the National Association of British and Irish Millers (NABIM) said that U.K. flour production continues to decline by 1% to 2% a year, but it is hard to know how much to attribute the downward trend to the impact of low carb dieting.

"The hype surrounding Atkins and other low-carb diets certainly doesn’t help," he told World Grain. "We don’t like the mood music. And worst of all it leaves consumers with doubts about the benefits of bread and other grain based foods."

NABIM is concerned enough to have launched in early June what it calls "The Vitality Eating System." Through its marketing arm, the Flour Advisory Bureau, it has come up with an eating plan designed directly to counter diets like the Atkins diet and the South Beach diet. Fronted by a celebrity, The Vitality Eating System offers "a healthy long-term alternative to faddy ‘quick fix’ diets."

The move i s p aralleled i n the "Go Grains for a Healthy Weight’ d iet p lan from G o Grains, a grain foods nutrition information service of BRI Australia and the Australian Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

All of these campaigns have been designed to communicate to consumers the nutritional benefits of grains and to counter the belief inherent in popular low carb eating regimens that grains are fattening. The campaigns echo the official good eating guidelines of government agencies, such as Britain’s Food Standards Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose recommendations are embodied in the Food Guide Pyramid.

The Pyramid has been a major marketing benefit for the grain-based food industry, however it may not be able to fall back on it for much longer.

A revision of the Pyramid, in conjunction with the 2005 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is under debate; a number of alternative pyramids have been proposed and some are worrying the industry. The Atkins Physicians Council has already briefed USDA officials about the Atkins Lifestyle Food Guide Pyramid, which places protein sources at the base of the pyramid and whole-grain foods such as barley, oats and brown rice at the top.

The possibility of a low-carb Food Guide Pyramid may sound far-fetched, but there is a definite bias in the debates and proposals towards a reduction in the 6-11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta group currently recommended and an emphasis on whole grains to the exclusion of refined grains.

Much of the argument centers on Glycemic Index (GI) and this may be the real issue for grain.

The glycemic index is a ranking of carbohydrates based on their immediate effect on blood sugar levels: those that breakdown quickly during digestion have the highest glycemic indexes, while those that breakdown slowly, releasing glucose gradually into the blood stream, have low glycemic indexes. In terms of grain foods, this basically means whole grains, especially oats and barley, bran and whole grain flours, are low glycemic, and thought of as "good carbs," and pastries, cakes, cookies, many readyto-eat breakfast cereals, white bread and flours rate high, becoming "bad carbs," according to the index.

Where it gets complicated is in computing Glycemic Load, the measure of total glycemic response to a food or meal. Glycemic load = GI (%) x grams of carbohydrate per serving; one unit of GL equates to a glycemic effect of 1 gram glucose. But GI value of a food is determined when the food is eaten in isolation, and the GI of an individual food can change when eaten in the context of a total meal: toast and peanut butter has a lower GI than the same toast eaten alone.

The GI concept is confusing; a NABIM survey of 400 attendees at a health food show found that only two people had any understanding of the concept.

Trish Griffiths, manager of Nutrition Services at BRI Australia Ltd. would agree.

"The concept is difficult for many people to understand — with no apparent consistency — e.g. some fruits have high GI, some have low; sugar and soft drinks have the same GI as wholemeal bread."

Never-the-less, low carb dieters are steadily evolving into low GI dieters, following plans such as the popular South Beach Diet. Though it is generally accepted that GI can be an important tool for diabetics, the jury is still out on its significance for healthy consumers.

"GI has enormous potential for misinterpretation," Griffiths told delegates at the Australasian Millers Conference in March. Such coverage is clearly not in the best interest of the industry. "There is a significant risk that high GI foods, including bread (both white and wholemeal), will come to be known as ‘bad,’" she said.

In Australia, this danger is compounded by the launch of the GI symbol for food labels. The labeling program is run by Glycemic Index Limited, a nonprofit company, whose members are the University of Sydney, Diabetes Australia and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

"With a GI of 70 — ranked ‘high’ — it is likely that the current poor image of white bread will be compounded," Griffiths warns.

Adding to the confusion is the absence of carb labeling regulation. Claims such as "low carb," "reduced carb," and "carb free," are illegal in the U.S. because they have not as yet been defined by the FDA. But manufacturers have started to flood supermarket shelves with foods that make implied low-carb claims like ‘carb smart,’ ‘carb aware,’ and ‘carb sense.’

The term used by Atkins is "net carb" — another reference to low GI. Manufacturers get ‘net carbs’ or ‘impact carbs’ by subtracting fiber, sugar alcohols and other carbs that supposedly have minimal impact on blood sugar.

Meanwhile, millers, bakers and the food industry at large are not waiting for the market to turn: low-carb and low GI foods present problems and opportunities now. A total of 95% of European and U.S. food and drink manufacturers recently interviewed by Reuters Business Insight said they could not afford to ignore the impact of low carb dieting on the industry. Over a quarter view the development of low carbohydrate foods as a priority and are actively investing in the research and development of new products.

While the U.K. is the most developed market for low carbohydrate foods in Europe, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia are also showing signs of a developing low carb sector, the Reuters report shows. France, Italy and Spain currently show less potential for adoption of the low carb trend however. Other markets being influenced by the U.S. trend — Canada, Israel, Australia and South Africa — were pinpointed as being the most developed global territories for low carbohydrate foods, although whether they will reach the size of the U.S. market remains to be seen.

Already an amazing 930 low carb food products have been introduced to U.S. markets in the last five years — worth around $15 billion this year and projected to double by 2005.

In the U.K., retailer Tesco has introduced specialist labeling for consumers wanting to check the level of carbohydrates in a variety of its private label products. Safeway is also considering a similar step, with foods containing less than 10% carbohydrate being labeled as such. Across the Atlantic, at Giant stores in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there is a Carb Friendly designator that helps customers find the products that fit their low carb lifestyle.

General Mills’ lower-carb offerings are, or will soon be, available. The line-up includes Betty Crocker Carb Monitor baking mixes, Pillsbury Carb Monitor Frozen Dinner Rolls and Total cereal, a lower-carb breakfast option.

Interstate Bakeries Corp., Flowers Foods and Sara Lee Bakery Group have all unveiled low-carbohydrate bread products. Sara Lee has supported the launch of its low-carb, low-calorie Sara Lee Delightful breads with a $15 million advertising campaign, the largest ad campaign the company’s baking division has ever initiated for a new product. In May, Sara Lee teamed up with Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. to unveil a new line of controlled-carbohydrate frozen pizzas, a product introduction it will distribute nationwide.

As food ingredient manufacturers crank up production of functional food and bakery premixes to meet low carb specifications, it will become easier for more smaller bakers and food manufacturers to enter the market.

Although pasta is considered a "good carb," U.S.-based American Italian Pasta Co. said that the "heightened negative halo" associated with carbohydrate-based products had contributed to the accelerated volume softness seen over the last year.

AIPC is taking a threepronged approach to the carbohydrate issue: an exclusive manufacturing agreement with Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. to produce low-carb Atkins branded pasta; educating consumers about the benefits of regular pasta; and introducing new retail low-carb pasta products under several brand names.

AIPC is not alone in the U.S market. Monterey Pasta Co. and Dakota Growers Pasta have also introduced low carb lines.

The rise in awareness — if not understanding — of the Glycemic Index pres- ents opportunities for whole grains and high fiber products that may outlast the low carb craze. A consumer survey of more than 10,000 nationally representative households in the U.S. taken in October and November 2003 shows that while white bread unit volume and dollar sales plummeted in 2003, the exact opposite was happening in whole wheat bread.

In white bread, dollar sales slipped 2.7%, and unit volume plummeted 4.7% but wheat bread dollar sales jumped 8.6% and unit volume increased 4.0%.

Low carb/low GI eating plans are not just re-educating the nutritional choices of consumers, they are introducing a whole new set of flavors and textures to hitherto white bread consumers. Apart from wheat protein isolate and resistant starch, low carb products often include ingredients such as nuts, flaxseed, amaranth, garbanzo beans, fava beans, oat flakes and multiple whole grains.

No one can predict the long-term impact of low carb demand — diet fads come and go in rapid succession. Issues mitigating against the long term popularity of low carb are cost and flavor when compared to traditional versions, and worries about the long term health implications of high proteins and fats and low grain intake.

Those with long memories say they have heard it all before, however. Back in 1930, The Northwestern Miller, reporting on the issuance of an official statement by USDA on the merits of of both wheat and whole wheat bread, commented: "For the first time the highest food authorities of the government have taken official action not only to sweep away the innuendo about the food value of white flour but to put an end to official and semi-official activities which have for so long given aid and comfort to the food faddists and crackpots who have made detraction of flour and bread their principal stock in trade."

We seem to have come full circle.