A new report, Carb-Cutting Shoppers, from US-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI), shows that nearly 26 million North Americans have taken to low-carb diets such as Atkins over the past 12 months.
More importantly, perhaps, for the future of the low-carb sector, the report suggests that nearly 2.5 per cent of Americans have also attempted to informally lower their carb consumption - a niche waiting to be exploited by both the consumer packaged goods (CPG) and retail sectors.
The report shows that there are in fact three types of product which have benefited from the low-carb fad: naturally low-carb product categories, including eggs and meats, as well as no/low/reduced sugar categories like bottled water and diet soft drinks; reduced-carb brands from speciality manufacturers such as Atkins; and reduced-carb brands from leading food/beverage manufacturers like Unilever or Kraft.
And the research also shows that the long-term benefits to the food industry need not be the exclusive reserve of specialist companies or major multinationals: sales of naturally low-carb products were up 5.8 per cent in the year to 13 June, compared to just 1.7 per cent for the food industry as a whole, the IRI data showed.
Nonetheless, it is the specialist low-carb brands segment which grown most rapidly - from nothing to $1.1 billion in under two years - and these products now account for 1 per cent of total food and beverage sales in the US - a growth rate that any company would envy, fuelled, of course, by an extremely high rate of product launches.
IRI said it was tracking sales of more than 80 low-carb brands in the US, with market leaders such as Atkins, Keto, and CarboRite continuing to grow their share (sales were up 181 per cent compared to last year) despite an increase in the number of brands launched by major food manufacturers over the past six months.
Nonetheless, these major players, whose low-carb products tend to be extensions of existing popular brands, have taken their share of the market from 44 per cent to 57 per cent over the past year.
Although naturally low-carb product categories and their low-carb branded rivals are still vying for consumer's attentions, research suggests consumers use the two product categories for entirely different purposes. The increase of nearly 6 per cent for naturally low carb products was built on growth for beverage, dinner and breakfast consumption products, whereas nearly 80 per cent of carb-branded activity growth was in snack meals and sweetened snacks and desserts.
All of which, of course, is still bad news for bakers, who have been among the hardest hit of all food producers by the low-carb fad. The IRI data suggests that while many consumers are not convinced by the need to pay extra for low-carb branded products, they are nonetheless ready to embrace the low-carb ethos and opt for other foods with reduced carbohydrate content.
So even those baked goods producers who have moved with the times and gone down the low-carb route to try and win back custom face continuing problems - unless they happen to be a major brand owner.