Retailers and other industry sources say the low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet craze is sending meat sales through the roof and, in some cases, prompting bakery and food-service managers to introduce diet-friendly products -- or at least take a serious look at newly formulated low-carb or protein-based foods.
Meat sales are definitely up. This year, consumers are expected to spend as much as $62 billion on fresh beef, compared to $59.5 billion last year, according to Cattle Buyers Weekly, a Petaluma, Calif.-based national industry newsletter. At the same time, declining bread sales is a hot topic of discussion with bakers, a spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh-based Bread Bakers Guild of America said. For the second year in a row, U.S. per capita wheat flour consumption declined in 2002 to 137 pounds -- the lowest level recorded since 1990, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
While experts cannot pinpoint precisely what's behind the trends, the enormous popularity of low-carb diets such as the Atkins, South Beach and Zone diets appears to be a factor.
At St. Paul, Minn.-based Kowalski's Markets, officials were not aiming squarely at meat-eating dieters when they introduced a new rotisserie meat program in store delis. Yet consumers on high-protein diets are some of their best customers.
"The customers we're drawing in are on the South Beach and Atkins diet," said Terry Bennis, perishable foods director for Kowalski's. "For those that want to create a meal, they can add veggies and potatoes. I'd say four to one, they go for just the meat. We're attracting all the low-carb eaters, including myself. I'm watching my carbohydrates and not buying bread anymore."
Rolled out in August, the program featuring up to 10 meats prepared in rotisserie ovens and sold hot or cold is so popular that the retailer had to buy a new hot-food merchandiser and new rotisserie ovens to keep up with demand, Bennis said.
Another strong seller for Kowalski's delis is a new meatless protein salad, made with cottage cheese and soy beans, she said. The salad was developed specifically to appeal to dieters.
Of course, the demand for meat isn't solely due to high-protein diets. The new abundance of easy-to-fix meat products in meat cases, and marketing endeavors like the "Beef, It's What's For Dinner" campaign no doubt play a part in the popularity of meat, a spokesman for the American Meat Institute said.
Nevertheless, members of AMI believe they are benefiting from the popularity of protein-rich diets, he said.
"Beef demand over the last two years has begun to move back up," said Dan Murphy, AMI's vice president of public affairs. "At the end of the day, it's not an exaggeration to say the tremendous popularity of these low-carb diets is at least one significant factor reversing what's been at least a 20-year [downward] trend for beef."
It is difficult to determine the impact the diets are having on bread sales. In many markets, retailers said they've seen no impact on sales of artisan breads and other quality bread products sold in the in-store bakeries. Nevertheless, officials are closely tracking bread sales.
Kowalski's has not seen any slump in sales of in-store bakery breads, but officials are keeping an eye out for appealing, low-carb bread products, Bennis said.
Likewise, Penn Traffic, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based chain of 212 stores, is looking into low-carb products for its ISBs, but has not made any decisions yet, a chain official said. "It's hard to measure the impact of low-carb diets on sales at this point," said spokesman Joe Ramirez.
Bakery officials at Richmond, Va.-based Ukrop's supermarkets are taking a look at the effect of the diets on bread sales, said Stephen Melton, director of bakery operations for Ukrop's, which operates more than 20 stores.
Meanwhile, the cooks at St. Louis-based Dierbergs are hard at work tweaking and reformulating foods to reduce the carb content, and promoting existing products that don't pack a lot of starch, an official with the chain said.
"In the central kitchen, we're working on a low-carb menu," said David Calandro, director of deli for Dierbergs, a 20-store chain. "One new item will be a crustless quiche. Some [products] already qualify as low-carb. We're working on signs. We're also talking about creating a sandwich that would be made with low-carb bread that we sell in the grocery aisle. [Customers] are requesting it."
Of course, the challenge for bakers looking for bread products for dieters is finding baked goods with the low-carb profile that also meet consumers' flavor expectations.
"I have been getting more calls lately for help with low-carb formulas from various regions of the country," said Peter Franklin, principal with PeterBread Consulting, Marblehead, Mass. "There are a lot of recipes, formulas and companies out there that cater to the low-carb fad. In my limited sampling, I have yet to taste anything that I would consider yummy in this arena."