Ever independent, U.S. consumers are creating and following their own unique dietary plans, incorporating aspects of some official weight-control regimens with their own sense of healthy eating.
As the No. 1 food destination, supermarkets are in a position to offer guidance -- or they can get caught up in the confusion.
According to a recent study by TNS, Greenwich, Conn., 82% of U.S. adults said they are limiting consumption of some kind of food, but only 9% said they're "on a diet." The numbers indicated that most Americans are genuinely trying to cultivate better eating habits. However, they are not signing on wholeheartedly to specific regimens, such as the South Beach or Atkins diets.
The various foods that consumers are limiting run the gamut. Forty-five percent in the TNS poll said they are limiting intake of fat; 38%, sugar; 34%, salt and sodium; 30%, trans fats; 28%, calories; 26%, cholesterol; and 25%, carbohydrates.
For supermarket retailers, carb counters seem to have had the most noticeable impact in recent months. According to a separate study by Information Resources Inc., Chicago, products naturally low in carbs have experienced a more significant surge than "carb-branded" products. While sales of these items grew $815 million in the 52 weeks ended June 13, products IRI defined as "naturally low in carbs" -- ranging from bottled water to meats and eggs -- spiked $4 billion during the same period.
When comparing this data, it seems clear that something larger than a diet fad is going on. Consumers are buying more natural snacks because they're avoiding trans fats; more chicken and lean meats because they're watching fat or carbs; more diet soft drinks because they're watching sugar, carbs or calories; and more bottled water because they're watching any or all of these.
For continued success, branded low-carb products must hold up to scrutiny and deliver on several promises over time. "A key lesson of the 'Low-Fat Era' in the early '90s is that healthier items cannot fall short in either taste or dieting expectations," the IRI study warned. "When word got out that so many higher-priced, low-fat, low-cholesterol new items were also high in calories, the excitement for 'low-fat' deflated quickly."
However, in a promising, though unfortunate, trend for branded low-carb products, the scenario for many Americans has changed from wanting to watch what they eat to being forced to monitor intake of certain foods. From 1980 to 2002, the number of diagnosed diabetics in the country more than doubled -- from 5.8 million to 13.3 million, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since diabetics must monitor their carbohydrate and sugar intakes, they would seem like a natural demographic fit, particularly for low-carb indulgence items.
Two experts contacted by WH, however, cautioned against broadly endorsing low carb as diabetic-friendly, saying while some branded low-carb foods may provide more options for customers with diabetes, others could be inappropriate in large amounts.
"It's something to be cautious about. [Consumers with diabetes] would still need to look at the nutrition panel on a low-carb brand, particularly for total carb content and total calories," said Kendra Gutschow, R.D., senior analyst of communications for the American Diabetic Association. "We encourage a healthy diet of whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish. But the general premise is that no foods are bad foods, and that any can be incorporated into a meal plan with the help of a dietitian."
Hope Warshaw, nutrition expert and author of five books on diabetes, agreed. "There's definitely a camp that believes low-carb diets are a good thing for people with diabetes, but I still don't believe that we have sufficient research to say that that's the way to go." Hope explained that for diabetics, "carb counting" refers to one method of dietary management meant to offer a broader range of food choices, not to diets that urge an extreme reduction of carbs.
Supermarkets wishing to appeal to these consumers should instead offer resources and information, both experts said. Gutschow said ADA is willing to work with supermarket chains to get out its message about diabetes through store events focused on healthy foods, signs and cooking demonstrations. Warshaw herself has contributed to informational brochures and a regular newsletter for Giant Food, Landover, Md.
Given the growing, broad-based interest in eating healthier, Warshaw and Gutschow also praised the growing movement toward diet-oriented store tours and corporate dietitians and nutrition experts. "Supermarkets, if they choose, can be places where people get trusted, valuable information," said Warshaw.