Low-carb losing its sparkle?

Related tags Nutrition

Could the popularity of the much-vaunted - and much-criticised -
low-carb diet fad already be on the wane? Manufacturers have
invested heavily in new low-carb products to tap into the trend,
and stand to lose a lot if, as one survey suggests, dieters are
more likely to focus on calorie and fat content.

Atkins and other low-carb diet regimes have taken the US - and increasingly, the UK - by storm over the last year, and the food industry has been extraordinarily quick to react, launching a raft of new low-carb products or variants of existing brands in a bid to profit from the phenomenal success of low-carb marketing.

The phenomenon has also had an effect on producers of foods traditionally high in carbohydrates - notably baked goods producers - who have rushed to stress their healthy credentials and launch their own diet alternatives to low-carb foods.

But could all this frenzy of marketing activity be in vain? A study this week by US market research firm InsightExpress​ suggests that more than half of American consumers who have tried a low-carb diet have already given it up, preferring instead to count calories and fat content as a more effective means of losing weight.

Nutritionists have long criticised low-carb diets - or indeed any weight loss regimes which promotes cutting out one type food as a healthy means of dieting - not only on the grounds that they are potentially dangerous but also that they are ineffective in the long term - while weight loss can be achieved through cutting the carbs, it is frequently put back on again once the diet is finished.

This is a factor which is being increasingly understood by the dieting public, it appears. InsightExpress' survey shows that fewer than 10 per cent of Americans are currently on a low-carb diet, and that even fewer are likely to start one, with most participants citing "efficacy shortfalls and the perception that low-carb foods and diets are an unhealthy way to eat"​ as the main reason for avoiding low-carb regimes.

More importantly, perhaps, the survey also found that consumers place carbohydrates lower on the list of important nutritional considerations when selecting groceries than other factors such as calorie content (the top consideration for 40 per cent of those questioned), fat (37 per cent) and cholesterol (31 per cent). Carbohydrate content was the deciding factor for just 30 per cent of Americans.

"Based upon consumer attitudes and opinions, manufacturers of food products may want to carefully consider committing additional product development, marketing, and financial resources to low-carb offerings,"​ said Lee Smith, president and COO of InsightExpress.

The survey data gives the lie to the findings of a recent market report from Reuters Business Insight​ which suggested that the low-carb marekt had, if anything, more staying power than most people imagined.

A quarter of the Europe- or US-based food and drink companies interviewed by RBI said they were actively investing in the research and development of new low-carb products, driven by increasingly depressing statistics on obesity.

It is now thought that one-third of western European consumers are currently overweight and this will increase to almost half by 2006, making the dieting business - already set to top the €100 billion by 2007 - a particularly attractive one.

Dieting, of course, does not mean exclusively low-carb, and any number of other food fads could have come and gone by 2007, yet the Atkins-driven low-carb trend appears to dominate most manufacturers' thinking. A quarter of the companies polled in the RBI survey said they had already manufactured a product under the low-carb umbrella, and two thirds of them said they saw the expansion of the low-carb sector as an opportunity.

While the UK is the most developed market for low-carbohydrate foods in Europe, as it mirrors the US the most closely, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia are also showing signs of a developing low-carb sector, the report suggested - a burgeoning growth which could be nipped very much in the bud if the American source of the fad begins to suffer.

Other markets being influenced by the US trend - Canada, Israel, Australia and South Africa - are pinpointed as being the most developed global territories for low-carbohydrate foods although whether they will reach the size of the US market, worth around $15 billion this year, and,a ccording to RBI, likely to double by 2005, remains to be seen.

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