NEW YORK -- The low-carb craze of the past year seems to be evolving into more modified consumer behavior that emphasizes carb-consciousness rather than extreme deprivation, according to a number of views presented during a conference call last week on the low-carb phenomenon.
One of the speakers during the Smith Barney-sponsored trade call was Judy Adams, president of the Wheat Foods Council, Parker, Colo. Adams noted that consumers aren't entirely abandoning low-carb diet plans, even though a decrease in popularity has been predicted for more than a year.
"The bad news is that low carb is mainstream, and [one study] that came out in 2002 said -- then -- that the use of high-protein, low-carb diets decreased, but all of the publicity and noise has still made people think they need to watch their carbs," she said.
Still, consumer demand seems to be downshifting. Data released last week by ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., and cited in the Wall Street Journal, shows that some food manufacturers are trimming plans for low-carb offerings, although "sales of low-carb foods are still climbing and a number of food companies contend the trend hasn't lost steam."
Growth rates have slowed, however, with sales of "carb-conscious" products only rising 42% in the 13 weeks ended June 12, half the growth rate of 95% during the prior 13-week period ended March 13, according to ACNielsen. Gauging how long the trend will last is difficult to predict, given an overarching focus on adult and childhood obesity.
For retailers and their manufacturer partners, low-carb consumers are highly desirable to keep around. They tend to fill their baskets with higher-margin, specialty items.
"Low-carb weight managers, or those who manage their weight through low-carb diets, tend to have higher incomes, be more focused on health, [and] exercise more. They're younger, obese, have higher cholesterol, and are intense users of diets," Adams said.
Members of hard-hit sectors like bread, pasta and rice are trying to re-orient consumers on the benefits of eating in moderation and exercising as often as possible, said Adams.
"Our major strategy at the Wheat Foods Council right now is to put common sense back into the anti-carb craze," she said. "Most of the people in the rest of the world have diets that are based on carbs, but we [Americans] blame [our obesity problem] on carbs."
Another call participant, Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D., professor of exercise physiology and program area director for the Kinesiology Program at the University of Virginia, said poor design, deceptive conclusions or limited views of health, and lack of long-term efficacy are the major problems with the current crop of low-carb diets.
"Most of the studies published in the past year don't show whether the diet will work in the long term, and most of them compare the low-carb diet to a low-fat diet, which was never really a truly healthy diet," he said.
In regard to longevity, Gaesser debunked the many claims that the low-carb lifestyle is a healthy one. He argued that no diet is truly healthy.
"There is no long-term data that indicates that dieting is good for us. Most people regain all of the weight they've lost, and some gain more," he said.
However, while Gaesser and Adams promoted the healthiness of a moderate lifestyle, they agreed the hopeless feelings of an obese nation will likely give birth to yet another diet trend when the low-carb craze is done.