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Rush to Produce Healthier Foods



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It's been a while since Dr. Atkins brought the low-carbohydrate gospel to the nation's dieters. But in the last six months or so, epidemic obesity, early-onset diabetes and more recently, the mad-cow scare, have convinced more consumers that you really are what you eat.

In response, food producers small and large are scrambling to create and market a cornucopia of products that the growing low-carb and organic crowds want to consume.

In October, Campbell Soup Co. launched its first organic product: juice made from organic tomatoes.

Last month, Interstate Bakeries Corp., makers of Wonder and Home Pride breads, introduced low-carb Roman Meal-brand loaves with 6 carbs per slice. Sara Lee Bakery Group, the No. 2 bakery in the U.S. after Interstate, followed suit late last month with a line of low-fat, low-carb sandwich bread aimed at consumers who want to slim down but not sacrifice taste.

In the last week alone, Frito-Lay Inc. announced plans to launch a new lineup of tortilla chips made with soy proteins and fiber - Doritos Edge and Tostitos Edge - that have less than half the carbohydrates of its other chips. Hardee's and Carl's Jr. said they will introduce a bunless, lettuce-wrapped burger, while Burger King said its Whopper will now come in bunless versions. Subway is advertising low-carb sandwiches.

Beer brewers, earlier to respond to carb-obsessed Atkins dieters, started marketing low-carb brands like Michelob Ultra in 2002. More recently, Miller Brewing Co. launched a campaign repromoting ``tastes great, less filling'' Miller Lite as a low-carb alternative.

Even junk food junkie haven 7-Eleven is launching a ``Better Choices, Better Year'' campaign to promote healthier products it started stocking around the first of the year.

The stores are marketing items like Atkins bread, health bars and shakes and Dr. Phil's Shape Up bars in their own low-carb/low-cal sections, said Margaret Chabris, a spokeswoman for 7-Eleven.

Pure Foods, a Beverly Hills maker and retailer of low-carb foods, was launched last September specifically to cater to the low-carb crowd. The company opened its first retail store in Santa Monica last month and plans to open stores in Pasadena, Studio City and West Hollywood next month.

Around January 20, it opens what it says is the first low-carb cafe in the U.S. in Beverly Hills. Despite its location, the cafe will feature desserts and entrees mostly priced under $10.

It's a very casual, quick-service cafe,'' said Brad Saltzman, Pure Foods co-founder, who started the company after gaining 35 pounds when he was working temporarily as a spokesman for the family of Scott Peterson, the Modesto man accused of murdering his wife and child.We did that because people who are overweight are self-conscious and sometimes have lower self-esteem. So we want it to be a place for people to feel comfortable.''

Meanwhile, organic produce sales, on a serious upswing since the USDA started regulating the industry in 2002, got an extra shot in the arm this fall as many Southern California shoppers unwilling to cross picket lines got their first exposure to organics at alternative markets like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.

On top of that, the first discovery of mad cow disease in the U.S. last month is prompting more protein eaters to buy grass-fed meat sold in organic stores.

Healthy foods don't always come cheap. But consumers eager to adopt a healthier lifestyle - and better-looking body - are more than willing to pay.

It's very expensive,'' said Klara Suknovalnik, a mother shopping at a Whole Foods in Woodland Hills. She said she sometimes pays $5 per pound for grass-fed meat and buys $8 organic toothpaste for her two-year-old daughter, Etana. But she wouldn't have it any other way.It's for her health,' she said.

Sales of ``designer'' eggs - from chickens fed with natural sources like sea kelp and flax seed - are up, even though they cost about $1 more than regular eggs.

Our desserts cost 30 to 50 percent more, but the people pay,'' said Greg Sambo, owner of The Thinnery, a sugarless bakery in Upland.I put a chile relleno out at $5, and they didn't flinch.''

Sambo, in business for 26 years, used to cater to a small diabetic community and a few health-food devotees. But in the last few years, he said, his business has shifted into overdrive as the incidence of diabetes and child obesity has mushroomed. He also makes no-carb and low-carb confections, wheatless, eggless amd cholesterol-free creations.

``The cheesecakes are very popular with the Atkins people, and chips and munchies with no carbs and no cholesterol. When people go on Atkins, usually their cholesterol goes up.''

Last year, Americans bought $1.6 billion worth of organic produce, up 70 percent from 2001 and more than double 2000 sales, according to Natural Foods Merchandiser, which tracks sales of organic food. The trade publication plans to start following sales of low-carb foods this year, said Mart Traynor, editor.

It wasn't until (2003) that the low-carb trend went crazy,'' she said.All those diets - the South Beach diet - and the obesity epidemic ... play off the low-carb notion.''

Breads containing six to nine carbohydrates per slice instead of 20 are frequently labeled carb-controlled'' orcarb-aware,'' because the Food and Drug Administration hasn't come up with a definition yet, so they can't technically be labeled low-carb.

Regardless, sales are booming, and most bakeries are working hard to improve or introduce specifically low-carb lines, said Nicholas Pyle, president of the Independent Bakers Association, whose members include Puritan Bakery in Carson, Galasso's Bakery in Mira Loma and Van Nuys-based La Brea Bakery.

``The movement toward low-carb products has more than made up for sales declines in white-pan categories. Our guys aren't adding one line of low-carb products. They're adding four and five lines,'' he said.

Low-carb still represents a small niche of the $19 billion bread, bun and cake industry, Pyle said. But it's grown from around $14 million to $100 million in the last year, and bakers are anxious to hook consumers willing to pay more for less carbs.

In 60 percent of bread purchases, people go for the least expensive loaf,'' said Pyle.But for those at the higher-end, people are recognizing their role in their physical fitness, especially this time of year. Everybody is going on a diet.''

Michelle La Frenais, a bakery team leader for Whole Foods, said she's seen specific requests for low-carb bread spike in the last six months.

Whole Foods is working on introducing low-carb tortillas, in addition to its low-carb snack cakes and loaves, which include French Meadow Bakery's gender-specific offerings: Men's Bread (high-protein, high-fiber) and Women's Bread (yeast-free). The loaves are $5.49.

They're very popular right now,'' said La Frenais.People are following their diet, and they'll pay.''

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(The Los Angeles Daily News web site is at http://www.dailynews.com)

c.2004 Los Angeles Daily News

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