Grain-based foods fight back

Bruised by the Atkins Diet, pasta, breads and other foods are reformulating for lower carbohydrates

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.

But there also are some exemplary processor efforts under way to reduce carbs.

One way is to replace highly refined wheat products with whole wheat flours. The latter have a lower glycemic index (i.e., it does not raise blood sugar like a hard wheat pasta would) and they yield a greater feeling of satiety. But some consumers associate dark color, bitterness and unwanted components with whole wheat products.

New World Pasta, Harrisburg, Pa., this past eyar introduced Healthy Harvest, a line of wholesome conventional pastas delivering the benefits of whole wheat and other whole grains without compromising taste, according to CEO Wynn Willard. The whole-wheat blend pastas are distributed nationally under the Prince Healthy Harvest and Creamette Healthy Harvest brands.

"The baking industry has always been responsive to consumers' needs to be healthy and lose weight," declares Mark Dirkes, senior vice president of Interstate Bakeries Corp., Kansas City, Mo. "They made thinner sliced breads as lower-calorie alternatives to regular breads in the 1960s, created truly reduced calorie breads in the '70s, and tastier versions, such as Continental Baking's Wonder Light bread, in the '80s."

Now, Interstate's Home Pride Carb Action breads in white and multigrain varieties debut this year in most of the U.S. and under the Merita Country brand in the Southeast. They will have less than 9 grams of carbohydrates and 45 calories per slice. "Our point of difference will be that our low-carb breads taste good," emphasizes Dirkes.

Often, "low-carb" products cost more and taste worse. There are several explanations for this. Pound for pound, protein and fat are generally more expensive than carbohydrates. Proteins and fats tend to be more susceptible to spoilage than carbohydrates; controlling storage conditions further adds to the cost.

Pasta manufacturers in developing low-carb versions discovered that protein components, in addition to being more expensive, also required more energy during extrusion because the resulting material was tougher and more elastic. Often, the addition of protein requires supplementary ingredients to mask its flavor or to lighten the color of the finished product.

Vendors scurry to assist

Ingredient vendors have been busy trying to assist food processors with viable ingredients and technologies for low-carb versions of traditional foods. Several classes of ingredients have made possible produce drastic reductions in the carbohydrate content of starchy foods such as bread and pasta. The stars include resistance starches, enzymes, non-glycemic functional sweeteners and fiber.

National Starch and Chemical Co., Bridgewater, N.J., has advanced the development of low-carb products with its Novelose line of specialty resistant starches. Their clean, neutral taste and white color makes these ingredients suitable for breads and sweet baked goods. Since they contain 60% total dietary fiber, these starches also allows for "good" or "high" source of fiber claims.

Atchison, Kan.-based MGP Ingredients developed resistant starch and protein isolates from wheat to help bakers replace carbohydrates and raise the protein levels in bakery products. The isolates are pure proteins and contain more protein and less carbohydrate than wheat gluten.

"Our ingredients are derived from wheat and naturally fit with bread and other flour-based products," said Steven Pickman, vice president of corporate communications. "Our company's expertise in wheat protein and starch technology has helped in the development of ingredients particularly suitable for otherwise unforgiving bakery systems such as bread, tortillas and cakes."

Butter Buds, a Racine, Wis., food technology company, has effectively employed enzymes to convert liquid beer concentrates into powders to flavor low-carb products.

Astaris, St. Louis, overcomes one of the challenges of formulating low-carbohydrate grain-based products that are yeast-leavened by diminished fermentation, proofing and leavening in a carbohydrate-reduced environment. When carbohydrates are reduced, yeast is robbed of fuel and therefore cannot produce carbon dioxide and leaven the product.

Astaris' EZ Dough technology replicates the leavening and traditional sensory characteristics of yeast-raised products in a reduced carbohydrate system. Proofing is also minimized. EZ Dough can be used alone or in combination with yeast to provide volume development

Just five years after gaining approval from the Food and Drug Administration, the non-glycemic, no-calorie sweetener Splenda from McNeil Nutritionals, Fort Washington, Pa., appears in more than 3,000 products ranging from beverages to baked products to condiments. Generically called sucralose, its clean taste and robustness over a wide range of temperatures and pH makes it suitable for low-carb formulations.

Fiber is one alternative with especially healthful attributes of its own. Fiber helps maintain balanced blood-glucose levels and healthy digestive systems, potentially reducing the risk of developing chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity and cancer.

Matsutani America Inc., Decatur, Ill., has Fibersol-2, a 90 percent soluble fiber suitable for increasing the fiber content of foods such as ice creams, yogurts, and beverages. The odorless, tasteless ingredient derived from corn starch is stable over a wide range of processing conditions and has contributed to the success of several low-carb ice creams and frozen desserts.

ConAgra Foods Inc., Omaha, Neb., is marketing an ultra-fine-ground whole-wheat flour from white wheat to help create bread with appearance, taste and texture very similar to white bread, but with six times more fiber. According to Glen Weaver, vice president of technical services, ConAgra is working to gear up U.S. production of white wheat to meet the growing demand.

Flax fiber is excellent for low-carb foods particularly because of its rich levels of soluble and insoluble fibers. Bioriginal Inc., a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based flax seed company, applied proprietary technologies to develop FibrOmega. This nutritionally rich natural fiber contains lignans and omega-3 fatty acids and is produced from organic, non-GMO, kosher-certified flaxseeds ,- with great promise for "low-carbing" grain foods.


Dun Gifford, Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust

The low-carb phenomenon has prompted the teaming of the National Pasta Assn., Boston-based Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust and pasta-maker Barilla to educate the masses on the importance and benefits of carbohydrates in the diet. The group is developing a program on carbohydrates and the benefits of grains, and is working on a "methodology and seal of approval" for "wholesome carbohydrates," which they will explain later in the year. They also are staging a conference this month in Rome, "A Global Overview of the Science of Healthful Pasta Meals," to educate food scientists, educators and food processors.

"Americans are eating in a stunning pattern," says Dun Gifford, Oldways founder and president. "Savvy food companies understand the cyclical nature of trends. It is their business responsibility to develop foods to capitalize on what consumers seek. The low-carb trend too shall pass."

Judi Adams, president of the Wheat Foods Council, is rightfully concerned that relevant scientific information is not getting out. "Recent and second-hand reports of selected scientific studies have led the average consumer to believe the Atkins diet has been vindicated," she notes. "While there are many that realize that carbohydrates are essential in a sensible diet and critical to good health, the food industry's message to the public is rather confusing."


Judi Adams, Wheat Foods Council

When all is said and done, one thing is certain. Weight management is (and always has been) a simple mathematical equation: the difference between the consumption and expenditure of calories. Negative balance prompts weight loss while positive balance results in weight gain. No diet can change this.


How big a market, really?

The NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., market research firm that tracks food trends, reports only 1 percent of the total U.S. population is strictly following a low-carbohydrate diet. Atkins Nutritionals Inc., Ronkonkoma, N.Y., however, claims 12% of the U.S. adult population either follows or has tried the Atkins Diet or similar low-carb regimens.

Low CarbBiz, a Denver based low-carb news service, claims Americans spent $15 billion in 2003 on low-carb products. CNN and several newspapers are now using this figure to depict the total size of the U.S. low-carb business.

Market transaction data are limited on low-carb foods. Matthew Wiant, chief marketing officer of Atkins, estimates the current opportunity in retail markets excluding restaurants to be roughly $2 billion. Depending upon your perspective, that's either a hefty number or a minuscule share of America's food budget.

Despite the small number of Americans actually abiding by low-carb diets, interest in this phenomenon among food producers, processors and retailers is growing exponentially. Dedicated fare is cropping up in outlets from health food stores to Wal-Marts. Even natural products giant Hain Celestial Group has joined the scrimmage by launching Carb Fit, a new low-carbohydrate food brand.

More than 1,000 low- or no-carbohydrate food and beverage products were introduced in 2003 in retail and foodservice sectors, according to Marketing Intelligence Service, a Naples, N.Y., new product tracker. A definite frenzy. What remains to be seen is if this is the zenith or just another step up a longer ladder.


The fine print

Currently, nearly any food product can be labeled "low-carb." The various low-carbohydrate labels all have different meanings and methods. The core of this idea is the glycemic-index concept and the belief that the longer it takes the carbohydrates to be digested, the lesser the impact on blood sugar and insulin and the healthier the food.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not defined "low-carb." Any such claims therefore are not approved. The FDA also has not defined "net carbs," "net-impact carbs" or "net-effective carbs." All these are qualifications of carbohydrate content, figured by subtracting the non-glycemic carbohydrates from the total amount of carbohydrates.

FDA definitions of carbohydrates are not based on their metabolic effects, and for good reason: These properties are influenced by what else is in the meal. The current practice of excluding fiber in the calculation of carbohydrates in low-carb foods is questionable. Fiber, according to the FDA is a carbohydrate.

Any benefits that low-carb foods might offer for weight loss or nutrition are arguable. Evidence is rather limited for the claim that some types of carbohydrates are more likely to cause weight gain than others by virtue of how they affect blood sugar. Replacing carbohydrates with protein ,- a strategy employed by most food product developers ,- still yields the same amount of calories.

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