The wildly popular high-protein, low-carb diets produced winners and losers in the supermarket fresh departments this year.
Most all protein-rich foods, especially meats and eggs, came out on top. Both categories saw increased sales and consumption, thanks in part to the legions who follow the Atkins and South Beach diets, or some variation of them. The weight-loss plans encourage people to fill up on meat, fish, poultry and even bacon, while strictly limiting their carbohydrates.
In a sign of the times, lettuce-wrapped burgers debuted on restaurant menus. Bread sales slipped in some markets. The industry went on the offensive. It was no easy task coming up with low-carb breads that consumers would actually buy, yet bakers got busy reformulating recipes to produce new products. Late in the year, bakers gathered for a national summit to address the new threat to their livelihood.
The anti-carb movement was just another serving of bad news for spud producers. Potato consumption dropped steadily during the 1990s, partly because of the demand for convenience foods and the decline in home cooking. The diet craze gave consumers one more reason to avoid potatoes. Producers are developing new marketing tools to reverse the trend. The U.S. Potato Board and producers recently agreed on a campaign that will play up some little-known nutritional facts about potatoes. The Idaho Potato Commission also launched a television ad in several major metropolitan markets, touting their nutritional benefits.
While the impact of the diets has many food industry veterans shaking their heads in wonder, one longtime observer of the nation's eating habits said the diet craze reminds him of the low-fat food trend that swept the country about a decade ago. Like today's diets, the low-fat regimens had enormous appeal, and spawned an industry devoted to manufacturing low-fat foods, said Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, and author of the annual "Eating Patterns in America Report," now in its 18th year.
The high-protein diets are not a new trend, but simply a variation of a perennial dilemma for fat America. "The [question] is, how do I lose weight by eating?" said Balzer. "We like to diet so we can eat. We want to lose weight by eating. The percentage of the population on a diet today is the same as the percentage of people on a diet in 1984. What we don't know is what kind of diet it will be."
Going into 2004, Balzer is keeping an eye on the pioneers who jumped in early with low-carb offerings. Chains like TGI Friday's, who introduced an Atkins-style menu, could inspire competitors to develop similar offerings, he said. Like the low-fat food industry, the low-carb food business will run its course.