The low-carb market, once dominated by specialty food companies like Atkins Nutritionals, has grown rapidly to include mainstream players like the Coca-Cola Co., Unilever Bestfoods, Nestle, Sara Lee, Hershey Foods Corp. and Frito-Lay.
Indeed, brand marketers both large and small are eager to cater to the some 30 million Americans who are counting their carbohydrates. To do so, they're quickly rolling out new products and line extensions ranging from low-carb salty snacks to chocolate confections.
Just last month, Unilever Bestfoods North America began rolling out an 18-stockkeeping-unit line called Carb Options. Labels identify the product's traditional counterpart, when one exists. For instance, labels read Carb Options peanut spread by Skippy and Carb Options ice tea by Lipton.
UBF-NA developed the line to tap into what it calls a food trend, not a fad, according to John Rice, president and chief executive officer, UBF-NA, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
"There hasn't been a food craze like this since everything went low fat in the '80s," Rice told SN.
To be sure, the power of the low-carb consumer cannot be denied, said Ray Crockett, spokesman for Coca-Cola Co.'s Minute Maid brand, which will introduce a low-carbohydrate orange juice beverage in the first half of this year.
The yet-to-be-named beverage will have about 14 grams net carbs per serving, which is half that of regular Minute Maid juice. It will also be fortified with calcium, along with Vitamin C and D [see related story in Fresh Market on Page 32].
"Our consumer research shows that most dieting Americans are trying to watch their carb intake," Crockett said.
Likewise, Nestle Prepared Foods Co., Solon, Ohio, became convinced that the trend was strong enough to warrant a new product after concept research scored above the research norm, said Brett White, marketing director for Nestle's Stouffer's Lean Cuisine, which just launched a line of entrees that contain between 12 and 25 grams of carbohydrates.
"National syndicated survey data indicated a large percentage of the population wishing to reduce carbohydrate intake," White said.
The new Lean Cuisine line has 33% fewer carbohydrates than traditional Lean Cuisine entrees. This was accomplished by replacing starches like pasta, rice and potato with additional vegetables, and avoiding sugary sauces, according to White.
"Consumers wishing to reduce carbohydrate intake are looking for great-tasting and convenient options. Frozen [food] meets these needs better than any other format," White said.
UBF-NA, Minute Maid and Stouffer's are far from alone in launching new products in response to the low-carb craze. In 2003, 633 new foods and beverages with low- and no-carb claims were introduced in the U.S., up from 339 in 2002, according to Tom Vierhile, general manager, Productscan Online, a database of new products from Naples, N.Y.-based Marketing Intelligence Service.
Overall, 3.4% of new food and beverage introductions had low-carb claims in 2003. The majority of these introductions were in the chocolate candy, snack bar and salty-snack categories.
While companies like Atkins and Keto Foods were quick to cater to low-carb consumers by rolling out a plethora of food and beverage options, it wasn't until recently that mainstream manufacturers got involved.
"As usual, the large manufacturers were the last to see an opportunity until it overwhelmed them," said Spencer Hapoienu, president, Insight Out of Chaos, New York, a marketing management firm. "The large manufacturers still think in terms of volume and mass marketing, instead of segmentations and niches."
But now, the big firms are more than eager to develop line extensions and even new brands. In doing so, they can tap into the millions, if not several billions, of dollars that consumers are spending on low-carb products.
Dollar sales of 14 key low-carbohydrate categories -- including eggs, bacon, soy products, pork rinds, sugar substitutes, snack nuts and meat snacks -- were up $1.2 billion collectively in supermarkets for the 52 weeks that ended Oct. 5, 2003, vs. the same period a year earlier, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.
While many manufacturers are confident of the longevity of the low-carb craze, Vierhile of Productscan said it's only a matter of time before low-carb sales contract.
Vierhile questions how long consumers will remain interested. He cited the potential for increased medical scrutiny and food-safety issues surrounding low-carb foods like beef, which already took a hit due to confirmation that a slaughtered cow from Washington state was infected with the nation's first case of mad cow disease.
"Yes, there's a core of devoted consumers. What worries me is that because so many consumers have jumped on this bandwagon, the only way for [sales] to go is down," Vierhile said.
Further, the New York Times reported that an Atkins Nutritionals official is telling health professionals that dieters should limit the amount of red meat and saturated fat that they eat. This contrasts to the well-known belief that people on the Atkins diet can eat all the red meat they want.
But manufacturers apparently want to play the low-carb game for as long it lasts. Beginning in May, for instance, Frito-Lay North America, Plano, Texas, will launch a new line extension of Doritos and Tostitos that has less than half the carbohydrates of the two tortilla chip brands.
Made with soy proteins and fiber, Doritos Edge and Tostitos Edge will have a total of 6 net grams of carbohydrates, 10 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber per serving. .Doritos Edge is currently in test market in Phoenix, Ariz.
Stephen Quinn, chief marketing officer, Frito-Lay, a division of Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo, said new products like Edge are necessary to fuel business.
"While we will continue to grow our base business, we are confident that by offering consumers a variety of better-for-you-snacks like Doritos Edge that we will deliver sustainable incremental growth," Quinn said in a statement.
Even manufacturers of categories hit the hardest by low-carb dieting are taking the "if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em" position. Sara Lee Bakery Group, St. Louis, for instance, has introduced Sara Lee Delightful sandwich breads that have 9 grams of carbohydrates (about 40% lower than regular breads) and 45 calories per slice. The launch is being supported by a $15 million marketing campaign, the largest for a new product by Sara Lee Bakery
Sara Lee said Delightful has a "real bread" taste. And when it comes to the success of low-carb foods, taste could be the difference between life and death. Marketers overwhelmingly say it's critical to deliver low-carb foods that are not only nutritious, but also pleasing to the palate.
"We wanted to offer a great-tasting, full-size slice of bread that also meets the nutritional needs of consumers watching their carbohydrate and calorie intake," said Richard Noll, chief executive officer, Sara Lee Bakery Group.
Eager to please low-carb consumers who don't want to sacrifice taste, UBF-NA is using the sugar replacement Splenda in its Carb Options line. Hershey Foods Corp., Hershey, Pa., meanwhile, has replaced traditional sweeteners with sugar alcohol and fiber in the formulation for its new Hershey "1 g Sugar Carb" bars. The result is what it says is a "great-tasting" product with only 1 gram of sugar per 1.1-ounce bar.