NEW YORK -- The low-carbohydrate craze isn't fading away. It's just that the numbers change from season to season, stated participants in a recent teleconference on low-carb eating trends. The teleconference was sponsored by Smith-Barney.
Matthew Wiant believes low carb, like other diets, experiences a surge in popularity during the turn of the year, when New Year's resolutions are being made. Wiant is senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Atkins Nutritionals Inc., the Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based maker of more than 50 Atkins low-carb foods.
"A certain percentage of people usually [start a low-carb diet] in the first quarter, then go off until the next January," he elaborated. "This year, the percentage [of consumers following low-carb diets] increased in March and has pretty much held stable since then. We expect [this percentage] to drop in the summer and fall months."
According to trends measured by Information Resources Inc., the Chicago-based consumer research company, the typical seasonal fluctuations within the low-carb category over the past 10 years include a spike during the first quarter, a softening in the second, a flattening during the third, and a decline in the fourth.
Retailers trying to predict the endurance of the low-carb craze based on individual category sales have their work cut out for them, said Wiant. So many low-carb products have been introduced to the U.S. market in 2004 compared to previous years that a number of completely new categories has been created.
"Last year, low-carb eaters had only bars, shakes and candy for snacks [to choose from]," he pointed out. "This year, there's cereal, milk, yogurt, ice cream, breads, pastas and soups, to name a few."
Wiant said it's very easy to jump to conclusions if you look at the growing number of fast-food and sit-down restaurants that have low-carb menu items, caterers who offer low-carb options, and even delis that promote reduced-carb alternatives. The multitude of new products -- combined with the new categories that have emerged recently -- blur the figures far too much.
Another concern is the virtual tennis match between experts who support the reduction of carbs vs. those who question the benefits of low-carb diets. The back-and-forth debate has not only left many retailers with sore necks, it's also fostered uncertainty on how to merchandise stores now and in the future.
Wiant argued that while many low-carb naysayers back their staunch anti-Atkins claims with scientific research, 31 studies conducted in recent years actually support the reduced-carb dietary choice.
These studies "show that low-carb diets are more effective than other weight-loss programs," Wiant said, adding that there are around 20 studies currently in the works that will likely support low-carb diets and, therefore, further support their effectiveness.
Of those who have tried low-carb diets, only 15% weren't satisfied with the results, a number that is still double the satisfaction ratio of other diets, said Wiant. Around 43% considered low carb the most effective diet they've ever tried when compared to 50 other diets that were listed. Seventy percent who were on a low-carb diet when surveyed boasted it was most effective when compared to other diets.
In regard to the evolution of low-carb categories, Wiant noted the significant shift from products manufactured by companies specializing in low-carb foods to the growing list of low-carb items produced by big-name manufacturers. As more food makers introduce their low-carb products, thus increasing the number of low-carb choices, consumers are more apt to try the new foods and stick with a low-carb diet.
Along with seasonality changes, new category segments, and the constant low-carb bantering between experts, the current obesity issue plaguing Americans will also play a role in the continuing of the low-carb trend, said Wiant.
"The CDC tells us that two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and many will seek weight-loss options," he stated. "Current studies show that 60% of those who've tried [low-carb eating] expect to stay on [the diet]."
Among lapsed users, or consumers who have started and ended a low-carb diet, Wiant reported that 59% plan to be back on a low-carb diet within the next two years. Another 9% of consumers who have never been on a low-carb diet expect to jump on the bandwagon in the next two years.
With so many new variables to ponder, Wiant advised retailers to consider two segments of low-carb consumers: die-hard carb counters, and those who partake in extremely low-carb diets on an ongoing basis.
"There's also the low-carb reducers who want to reduce, but are not willing to make the sacrifice to go to the low-carb category," he said. "[The carb-reducers] will be attracted to reduced carb, not necessarily low carb."
This pertinent information should be noted when merchandising stores in years to come, Wiant recommended. "As a marketer, all of these leading indicators suggest this trend will grow for a long time."
The conference call was the second of two examining the low-carb phenomenon. The first featured representatives of the Wheat Foods Council and other critics of the diet plan [see "Low-Carb Trend to Moderate, Says Panel," SN, July 19, 2004].