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From Bread to Beer, High-carb Foods Get a Low-carb Makeover

Posted - Jan. 26, 2004 at 6:20 a.m.



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Behold the carbohydrate: It will fuel your body's engine.

Beware the carbohydrate: It will swell your waistline and other parts of your body, too.

Low-carb evangelicals are winning converts as the nation's obesity spreads. The number of new low- or no-carb products nearly doubled in 2003 from the year before, according to New York-based market research firm Productscan Online.

And like good politicians, many makers of carb-rich foods such as bread find they must appeal to both athletes and aesthetes.

From its brick bunker of a headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, Bread maker Bimbo Bakeries USA came up with a two-pronged approach to keep its bottom line plump. That's because the popularity of low-carb diets, first espoused in 1972 by the late Dr. Robert Atkins, has led to a stomach-churning statistic: 40 percent of consumers are eating less bread than they did a year ago.

Bimbo, the Fort Worth-based division of one of the world's largest bakeries, Mexico-based Grupo Bimbo SA, late last year introduced breads with six net grams of carbs under its U.S. Oroweat brand. ("Oroweat is proud to introduce its new Atkins-endorsed 'Carb Counting' breads created specifically for the low-carb lifestyle," a Bimbo release says.)

But it is also the proud official bread supplier to the U.S. Olympic team in Athens, Greece. ("Carbohydrates are the primary fuel utilized during high-intensity exercise," says Judy Nelson, U.S. Olympic Committee nutrition coordinator, in a news release distributed by Bimbo.)

Chicago-based Sara Lee Corp. has just launched its own low-carb breads, dubbed "Delightful White" and "Delightful Wheat." Three months ago, San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery Co.'s upscale Central Market chain began baking low-carb breads and hamburger buns daily.

Dallas-based 7-Eleven Inc. joined the "low-carb revolution" this month with a promotion with the manufacturer of Atkins Nutritionals Inc., a company formed by Dr. Atkins. CarbSense Foods Inc. serves up a low-carb tortilla chip. Keto Foods and Snacks has launched a low-carb milk.

Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc. credits its new Michelob Ultra, a low-carb brew launched in late 2002, with lifting its 2003 profits. It's been matched by several competitors. Along with the plethora of snack bars, there are low-carb pestos, pastas and puddings.

New low-carb products are hitting the shelves daily.

It seems that only the potato is still a potato, packed with carbs and unadulterated by marketing mutations.

The rise of "low-carbers," as low-carb dieters call themselves in the Internet blogosphere, is so significant that in November the bread industry held a "summit" on how to compete. It was led by the National Bread Leadership Council on the Providence, R.I., campus of Johnson & Wales University. A council-commissioned survey found that of 1,000 people questioned, 16 percent had gone on a low-carb diet and 40 percent said they had cut back on the carb load.

Worse yet, bread's suffering from an image crisis in a country where obesity is reaching new highs. Only about a third of those queried said that bread was a healthy carb.

"Bread isn't the problem in America ... overeating is the problem," argues Bimbo spokesman David Marguiles. Moreover, in Europe, where people eat two to three times the amount of bread as Americans, there is a lower rate of obesity, he asserts.

"I think a lot of people have just gone to an extreme," says dietitian Lona Sandon, assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. "And the food marketing has gone to the extreme. It is now trickling into the restaurants, the beer and the bread. There is even a new low-carb milk."

Consider the muscle, she says.

Want it to work smoothly? With vigor? Fuel it with carbohydrates, Sandon says. Moreover, especially if you are a woman, fortified bread is enriched with vitamin B and iron, she adds.

"If you are someone who is very active, you cannot supply fuel to the muscle without that carbohydrate," Sandon says.

Just the same, Dallas resident Richard Longstaff has eschewed bread, having kept off 25 pounds since he started a low-carb regimen 18 months ago. He says he is making such eating "a way of life."

He is fond of low-carb snack bars and shakes, but it's thumbs-down on low-carb breads and cereals. Something's missing, he says.

Longstaff says simply, "They just taste funny."

At Dallas' upscale Central Market, food service director Mark Bauman says annual bread sales were down 9 percent and cheese sales were up 29 percent in 2003. Fatty cheese is an approved food on the Atkins Diet, whose Web site boasts of eating "liberally, even luxuriously, off the fat of the land." Says Bauman, "In the retail business, you can always find an excuse for why you are not selling something. And that is a pretty good excuse for bread sales."

Six months ago, Bauman went on the Atkins diet. He dropped 80 pounds from his previous 320-pound self. At 245 pounds, he decided even his low-carb breads couldn't whittle him further. "I wanted to just hang out and eat meat and cheese," he says.

He added exercise. Off came more pounds.

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(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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