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America's quest to lose weight is once again proving to be fertile ground for new products, ingredients, and technologies in the food industry. Disregarding moderation, balance and exercise for health and wellness, the latest quick fix embraces protein and fats and shuns carbohydrates.
It apparently started with the Atkins Diet, a high-protein, high-fat, and very low carbohydrate regimen. As a result, consumption of foods such as eggs, bacon and sausage reportedly are at their highest levels in a decade while those of grain-based foods, especially bread and pasta, are declining.
The allure of rapid weight loss with seemingly less sacrifice has spawned a new category, low-carbohydrate foods, that fetched an estimated $2 billion in sales in 2003. Food companies are banking on attracting consumers in droves.
While food marketers and strategists debate whether it's a sea-change, a trend with some staying power or just a fad, the fact remains there is some good money to be made, at least in the short term, by developing low-carb products. Grain-based products have been among the hardest hit by the Atkins phenomenon, so they may have the most to gain by some retooling to reduce their carbohydrates.
How the diet works
Human cells use carbohydrates as fuel. When carbohydrates are exhausted, cells turn to stored fat for energy, creating a condition called "ketosis." People on low-carb diets experience rapid weight loss initially. This may be attributed to several factors.
Low-carb diets tend to be low in calories. Some of the weight coming off is water that was stored with carbohydrates in the body. Dieters experience extended satiety because proteins and fats digest at a much slower rate than carbohydrates.
An understanding of human physiology in conjunction with what history has demonstrated, however, compels many to seriously question if such an approach is sustainable and, more importantly, good for one's long-term health.
At first replete with success stories of these low-carb diets, the media now are reporting concerns from health care experts about the long-term safety of them. Many low-carb diets advocate consumption of foods such as eggs, cheese and bacon. These items are high in saturated fat, which is linked to increased risk of coronary artery disease and certain cancers. On the other hand, low-carb diets are inherently low in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fiber, the health benefits of which have been well established.
The topic is so hot the National Institutes of Health has sponsored an in-depth, yearlong study under the direction of Gary Foster at the University of Pennsylvania. So maybe more will be known later this year.
Processors enter the fray
The emptiness of the low-carbohydrate approach becomes rather apparent upon examining how low-carb products are being formulated today. Food developers dilute carbohydrates in foods in a number of ways:
* Replace refined flour with an ingredient of higher protein content ,- such as soy flour, soy protein, or wheat protein.
* Augment fiber content with ingredients such as bran from wheat, oats, or corn or fiber from soy, flax seed, and even bamboo.
* Add ingredients such as nuts, nut paste and nut flours.
* Replace caloric sweeteners with non-caloric sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose and sugar alcohols such as maltitol, lactitol, sorbitol and xylitol.
* Alter the fundamental process, such as the extent of fermentation, to change the amount of carbohydrates produced ,- so yesterday's lite beers are today's low-carb beers.
Several "low-carb" food products on the market today have approximately the same amount of carbohydrates as their original counterparts do, but their labels camouflage this fact in several interesting ways. One simple way is to focus on "net-effective carbs," a questionable practice that subtracts non-glycemic carbohydrates from the total amount of carbohydrates (see sidebar "The fine print").
New World Pasta lowered carbs in its pastas by replacing highly refined wheat products with whole wheat flour.
Lower numbers to depict the carbohydrate level lead consumers to believe they are consuming fewer carbohydrates than the formulation actually contains. They also are led to believe the remaining carbohydrates do not affect blood sugar and therefore, will not contribute to overweight and obesity.
Percentages always are deceptive when dealing in small numbers, but that hasn't stopped marketers. Michelob Ultra beer was specially formulated to hit this low-carb market. A 12-oz. bottle has 95 calories and 2.6 grams of carbohydrates. Meanwhile, the long-used formula for Miller Lite contributes 96 calories and 3.2 grams of carbohydrates. The carbohydrate difference between the two beers is minuscule, but Michelob Ultra can rightly claim a 19% reduction in carbohydrates.
Consumers, believing there's a law against false claims on food labels, believe low-carb claims to be true and meaningful. Many erroneously believe that foods lower in carbohydrates are also lower in calories.
Atkins Nutritionals Inc. of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., touts only 60 calories and 3 "net impact" carbs in a slice of its "low-carb" bread, which incidentally contains 8 grams of total carbohydrates. In contrast, a slice of "diet" (low-calorie) bread typically contains about 50 calories and about 10 grams of total carbohydrates. The difference is really insignificant in the grand scheme of our daily eating.
An ounce of Hershey's low-carb chocolate bar provides 155 calories and 12 grams of fat, and containing no sugar it claims to have only 1 "net impact" carb. In contrast, a comparable candy bar has only 150 calories and 10 grams of fat, but possibly 16 carbs. Here the low-carb product has more calories and more fat than its regular counterpart.
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