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Starch Makes A Stand

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The Starch Wars have begun.

Potatoes, pasta, rice and bread -- once the high-carb heroes of dieters and marathon runners -- are being snubbed by consumers caught up in the low-carbohydrate craze.

Sales are slipping, some restaurant menus are downplaying them, dieters are bad-mouthing them. But the scrappy starches have had enough and are launching counterattacks.

Comparing 2002 with 2003, fewer consumer dollars were spent on fresh potatoes, rice, white bread, cereal, cookies and pasta. More was spent on eggs, bacon, sausage, meat snacks, wheat bread and nuts, according to ACNielsen, a market information firm that analyzes scanning data from supermarkets, convenience stores and other outlets.

''This is a pretty clear indication that the low-carb, high-protein diets are having a significant impact on what people buy,'' the company's Todd Hale says.

In fact, of the 10,000 households surveyed by ACNielsen, 17% say someone is on a low-carb diet; an additional 19% say someone was once on such a diet but no longer is.

It's no wonder that some producers of starchy foods are fighting back. Among the strategies:

* This week, the U.S. Potato Board is launching a consumer education campaign with the slogan ''The Healthy Potato. Naturally Nutritious. Always Delicious.'' Ads that give the ''skinny'' on the nutrient content of the spud will begin appearing in USA TODAY, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Weight Watchers is touting the potato's virtues as part of a larger educational campaign pushing produce. And recipes for spuds (without most of the sour cream and butter) are being posted on

* Last week, nutrition researchers and pasta industry executives met in Rome for a conference called Healthy Pasta Meals. Among the conclusions: Pasta is a ''good carbohydrate'' that when eaten in proper portions with other foods does not cause weight gain.

* In April, the milk mustache campaign will unveil an ad with Dr. Phil touting milk's weight-loss benefits. (Milk contains carbs and is on the no-no list of some low-carb diets.)

* The American Bakers Association is working on a consumer research project about low-carb diets and is considering launching an aggressive public relations campaign to dispel what it considers myths about bread and other grain products.

* USA Rice, a trade association, is jumping on the bandwagon, trying to figure out ways with its limited budget to save rice's image.

The potato campaign is an effort to ''save our reputation,'' says Linda McCashion, vice president of public relations for the United States Potato Board, a trade group based in Denver. ''We were thought of as a health food until recently, and we want to regain that position.''

People are eating potatoes less often than they did 10 years ago because of lifestyle changes, she says. They are dining out more, cooking less and using convenience foods.

''We've seen the effects of low-carb diets (on consumption) the last couple of years,'' she says.

In defense of the potato

The potato board's research indicates that consumers don't know the spud's virtues, especially for vitamin C (45% of the daily value and potassium, 21% of daily value).

Some nutrition researchers are up in arms too, and they are defending starches.

When it comes to the potato, ''the calories are right (100 for a medium baked potato), the potassium is right, and the price is right,'' says George Blackburn, associate director of nutrition at Harvard Medical School. Blackburn's name appears as a supporter of potatoes in the new ads, but he's not a paid consultant, just a fan of spuds. He eats five baked potatoes a week but hasn't touched a french fry in a long time.

Other high-carb industry folks are defending products. ''The whole low-carb phenomenon is like trying to stop a runaway train, and we don't have the strength or money to stop it,'' says Kimberly Park, a spokeswoman for USA Rice.

''But we're working on a plan to try to slow it down, to counterbalance negative publicity. Rice is in a unique position because brown rice fits into these low-carb diets in the later phases.''

Plus, it works into low-fat, low-calorie, gluten-free diets and vegetarian diets, she says.

It's 'hula-hoop' thinking

The bakers are playing catch-up too. ''We are doing our homework to figure out what we are up against to determine our strategy,'' says Paul Abenante, president of the bakers group. ''We've got to get in the game.''

Pasta is central to the Mediterranean diet, which has been highly praised in recent years as a healthy way to eat, according to those at the Rome conference.

High-carb diets have worked well for centuries in other countries, says K. Dun Gifford, president of Oldways Preservation Trust, the food think tank that organized the meeting. But he says people in the USA have trampled carbs recently because this is a ''hula-hoop society with a quick-fix mentality.''

There's another way to look at it, says Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm. ''Americans are willing to try new things, and they want to figure out a way to lose weight by eating.''

Roots of the debate

So how did this battle begin?

For years, the government and major health groups have been recommending that people eat a diet high in carbohydrates, especially nutrient-rich complex ones, found in all plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. The carbs are converted by the body into blood sugar, mostly glucose, and used for fuel.

The popular Atkins and South Beach diets slash carbs, including most processed and simple ones such as pastries, cookies, cake, soda and candy.

In the early phases, the diets also eliminate some foods that for years have been considered ''good,'' including potatoes, sweet potatoes and rice.

The reason: These foods rate high on a controversial scale called the glycemic index. Some believe that foods high on this scale cause blood sugar and the hormone insulin to rise and fall sharply. They say this fluctuation isn't healthy and prompts more hunger three or four hours later.

In Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, a baked potato is rated high on this scale, as is white rice, white bread and many cereals, and thus is something to be avoided; pasta falls in the midrange.

Debate rages on

Mary Vernon, a family physician and bariatric specialist in Lawrence, Kan., follows the Atkins diet and recommends it to patients. She loves the food she eats and says she feels great on the program.

''One of the benefits of Atkins, as opposed to low-fat and low-calorie diets, is the ability to eat protein, fat and fiber, which helps keep your blood sugar stable and decreases hunger,'' says Vernon, who lost 35 pounds on the diet and has kept it off for five years.

She doesn't miss pasta, potatoes and rice, which aren't her favorite foods anyway. If she's going to reach for extra carbohydrates, she chooses whole-grain breads and fruits.

Starches aren't on dieters' no-no list forever, says Colette Heimowitz, an Atkins companies nutritionist. ''The potato offers nutritional value and can be incorporated into a low-carb lifestyle once dieters approach their goal weight and as long as they don't eat too many carbs.''

The glycemic-index theory is being hotly debated by obesity researchers and nutritionists who say it has not been proven beneficial for weight loss, unfairly penalizes some healthy foods and confuses dieters.

''The important thing is the combination of foods in a meal,'' Blackburn says. ''When you combine fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and a variety of plant-based carbohydrates, you end up with a low-glycemic index-load meal.''

Judi Adams, a registered dietitian and president of the Wheat Foods Council in Parker, Colo., is fed up with the debate about the glycemic index and with the beating that bread and other wheat products have taken because of it.

''It's stupid to even consider the glycemic index,'' she says. ''There are no long-term studies that show the glycemic index makes any difference for obesity or diabetes.''

People seem to have forgotten that it's calories that count and exercise that matters when it comes to weight loss, she says. ''Most of the world bases their diets on carbohydrates, and they don't have the obesity rates we do because they eat less and exercise more.''Cover storyCover story

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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