The truth about carbohydrates?

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Low-carb diets, Nutrition, Atkins

British promoters of carbohydrate-rich foods such as bread and
potatoes have repeatedly stressed that the low-carb Atkins diet fad
has had little or no impact on sales of their products. But this
has not stopped them from going to increasingly expensive lengths
to promote the wider health benefits of their products, and to
dispel the myth that carbohydrates are bad for the diet, writes
Chris Jones.

As we reported​ earlier this week, British bakery industry groups have been forced to react to the growing popularity of low-carb diets such as Atkins – estimated to have at least 3 million fans in the UK alone – despite repeated assurances that bread sales had not been affected by the fad.

Instead, the Federation of Bakers, the Grain Information Service and the Flour Advisory Bureau are concerned about the accuracy – or rather, the in​accuracy - of the information being given to dieters about the role played by carbohydrates in the diet – information which they claim is not only misleading but potentially dangerous.

“Atkins has not had a big impact on bread sales,”​ Dr Tamara de Grassi, head of communications at the Flour Advisory Bureau repeated to FoodandDrinkEurope.com​. “But the effect of the low-carb message on which it is based could be dangerous in the long term, if nobody counters it.”

“Atkins and other low-carb diets have succeeded while the more orthodox dieting message has failed to get through, and that is down simply to the marketing,”​ she claimed. “These diets are all image driven, helped by celebrity endorsements and a false promise of sustainable weight-loss. The diet industry has become big business and it has a lot to lose if consumers lose interest, so companies are investing in keeping their interest.”

Flawed science?

But what is even more of a cause for concern is that the science on which the Atkins diet is based - and which is used to such great effect to persuade dieters to switch to the low-carb method - is flawed, according to De Grassi, and flies in the face of a nutritional orthodoxy which has been accepted since the 1950s.

“There is no long-term research to back up the claims of low-carb diet,”​ De Grassi said. “They are simply a way of making money – persuading consumers to buy into a very expensive range of products in order to lose weight. Quick-fix diets like this allow the consumer to see things in terms of black and white.

“But dieting is not that easy – it has to be slow and steady to lose weight and then keep it off. Simply cutting out one part of the diet is not only ineffective for weight loss in the long term, it is also highly dangerous, since our bodies need all of these food types in moderation.”

And that is what is particularly worrying about the low-carb fad – that the media blitz ‘demonising’ carbohydrates could cause serious damage, not only to sales of high-carb foods but, more importantly, to people’s health.

“Consumers will believe what they read, and the sheer volume of coverage given to low-carb diets has already led to considerable confusion about what is healthy and what is not. This is what makes us particularly angry – consumers are being deliberately misled in order to stimulate interest in diet products.

“A balanced diet has been recommended as the best way to lose weight and to maintain weight loss for more than 50 years,”​ said De Grassi. “It may not be quite as ‘sexy’ as Atkins, but it is certainly safer. A survey carried out by the Grain Information Service last year showed that 97 per cent of UK state registered dieticians believe that Atkins is based on bad dietary advice; it does not advise people to seek advice from a qualified health professional and contradicts government advice to maintain a healthy balanced diet.”

Atkins is based on the premise that wheat is fattening, but two thirds of the dieticians questioned in the survey said they would never recommend cutting wheat out of the diet in order to lose weight, since complex carbohydrates such as wheat are an essential part of a healthy diet.

“This is a major cause for concern. These low-carb and other ‘quick fix’ diets are being promoted by alternative health practitioners who, quite frankly are not qualified to give this kind of advice. They are preying on the vulnerable – young women aspiring to look like Hollywood actresses, for example – with promises of weight loss without any mention of possible side effects like osteoporosis or kidney problems.”

Taking the ‘sexy’ approach

Even more worryingly, consumers following these diets seem to know that they are unhealthy – but still follow them, according to De Grassi. Another survey showed that 97 per cent of consumers feel that cutting out the carbs is an unhealthy way to diet, but 15 per cent of them said that that would not stop them from doing so.

Hence the need to take action to redress the balance – not to tackle Atkins and other low-carb diets head on, but rather to promote and support an alternative diet, and , perhaps most importantly, to ensure that the dietary advice being given is correct.

“The problem with the bread industry campaigning against Atkins is that consumers will see it simply as sour grapes, a knee-jerk reaction to a fad which has impacted our sales,”​ said De Grassi. “So that is why we have decided instead to opt for supporting alternative diets – more balanced and healthy ones – and to try and beat the fad at its own game. We believe the Vitality diet appeals to the same target audience as Atkins, and that is why we have ask [TV personality] Cat Deely to promote it – she is an aspirational role model who we hope will help disseminate the right healthy eating message.”

Potatoes are healthy, too

The bread industry is not the only one to feel the need to promote the benefits of carbohydrate consumption. Kay Hogg, assistant marketing manager at the British Potato Council told FoodandDrinkEurope.com​ that a £1 million marketing campaign, entitled ‘Fab not Fad’, would be run this summer to promote the health benefits of potatoes.

“Potato consumption has not been affected by Atkins and other low-carb fads, as TNS data shows that Britain remains the third largest potato-consuming nation in Europe after Portugal and Ireland,”​ she said. “Britons eat 103 kg of potatoes per person each year – the equivalent of around 500 medium-sized spuds.”

Hogg also stressed that the marketing campaign was not a reaction to the low-carb phenomenon. “We have always promoted the health benefits of potato consumption. They are a great source of energy, low in salt, virtually fat free, cholesterol free and provide important vitamins and minerals.”

For example, one medium jacket potato contains 144 per cent of the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of vitamin B6 (vital for a healthy nervous and immune system), 86 per cent of the RDA of vitamin B1 (essential for the release of energy from food and for a healthy nervous system), 63 per cent of the RDA of vitamin C (a powerful antioxidant that helps neutralise the damaging effects of free radicals) and 39 per cent of the RDA of folic acid – involved in the production of red blood cells.

Potatoes are also an excellent source of potassium, copper, magnesium, zinc and fibre.

“Consumers have lumped potatoes into a ‘starchy carbohydrate’ category purely because fad diets have said they are not good for us. The truth is that by eating potatoes, one doesn’t have to eat as much food to achieve a whole host of goodness – potatoes are filling and they don’t leave you wanting to eat more,”​ said Hogg.

The low-carb fad in the US has even spread to the potato sector, with much publicity in recent weeks for a so-called low-carb potato – something of a storm in a teacup, as far as the BPC is concerned.

“The US does not grow very many salad potato varieties, unlike the UK, and that is why there has been all this fuss about a so-called low-carb potato,”​ said Hogg. “As we understand it, the potato in question is simply a different variety – Russet Burbank – which has a lower carbohydrate level than most other potatoes grown in the US – but it is already widely available here.”

Government role is vital

But marketing campaigns by individual industry groups are unlikely to be as successful in the long term as government-led campaigns, and both De Grassi and Hogg said that they were working closely with the government on a number of health-related campaigns which are seen as the most effective way of getting the right message through to consumers.

Government-led campaigns have not always been entirely successful in the past – the Five-A-Day campaign, for example, has not led to a spectacular increase in fruit and vegetable consumption, although consumers may at least be more aware of the benefits of eating more of this type of food every day.

But with obesity on the rise – and diet-related diseases taking up an increasing share of the NHS budget – the government appears keener than ever to invest the necessary funds in campaigns to promote healthy eating, and Britons at least look certain to get some ‘proper’ advice on what to eat – although whether that will be enough to persuade to change their diet remains to be seen.

Related topics: Ingredients

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