Candy bars and other treats added to the Atkins treatment

Snack industry watches as diet guru markets goodies some question

August 25, 2002|By Susan Chandler | Susan Chandler,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Alan Portnoy is an avid fan of the Atkins diet.

The Columbus, Ohio, accountant lost 40 pounds and four inches from his waist in a few months by avoiding sugar, bread and cereal, all carbohydrates that the diet severely limits. He was able to eat plenty of satisfying foods such as meat and cheese.

But when it came time for a snack, Portnoy had a hard time finding munchies that passed the low-carb test. That's because his favorite things to nibble on - pizza, pretzels and chocolate chip cookies - are all serious no-no's for Atkins' followers.

"My biggest weakness was potato chips," he says with a sigh.

Now Dr. Robert Atkins, the cardiologist who popularized the restricted-carbohydrate diet in the 1970s, is trying to fill the snack gap his popular diet has created.

His privately held, New York-based company, Atkins Nutritionals Inc., is producing everything from snack bars to cheesecakes. There also are loaves of Atkins' bread and mixes for banana-nut muffins and brownies. By the end of the year, there will be Atkins chips and freshly made Atkins meals available for delivery to homes in Los Angeles and New York.

Food makers are keeping a close eye on Atkins' burgeoning food empire to see if consumers bite. Companies such as Procter & Gamble, Kraft Foods Inc. and Quaker Oats Co. are always eager for new products. But after spending big bucks developing low-fat foods that consumers are shunning, they might not have much appetite for another foray into a diet-related category, industry experts say.

Frito-Lay, for one, is keeping an open mind. If consumers start asking for high-protein, low-carb snacks, the maker of Lay's potato chips and Doritos is willing to dish up new products. "We provide America's snacks," said company spokeswoman Lynn Markley.

In the absence of traditional snacks, Atkins dieters have resorted to foods that make health professionals cringe. Pork rinds, which have zero carbohydrates because they're made from animal skin, have become the substitute of choice for bread-based salad croutons for some die-hard, low-carb adherents. Also, beef jerky has proved a handy high-protein snack, which helps explain why sales of Frito-Lay's Oberto beef jerky have increased more than 55 percent during the past two years.

Such consumption patterns have nutrition experts up in arms over the potential health risks related to the Atkins diet.

"He's been a far better entrepreneur than he is a nutritionist," said Dr. Neal Barnard, author of six nutrition books and a spokesman for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington. "It's a racket. Dieters are desperate for a product, and that's what Atkins has keyed in on. You'd be better off taking your money to the nearest produce department."

For his part, Atkins' opinion of low-fat foods is clear, if not very polite. "Pry open the lid on the garbage can and stuff them in ... ," says a page on the Atkins Center Web site.

So, if Atkins is so anti-sugar, how can he be selling candy bars, peanut butter cups and caramel nut chews?

Because of advances in food science, the doctor said. The diet guru differentiates between good and bad carbohydrates, said Matthew Spolar, vice president of product development for Atkins Nutritionals.

Good carbohydrates are things such as fiber, which does not affect blood sugar levels significantly, he said. Other beneficial carbs, Spolar explains, come from the artificial sweetener sucralose made by pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson.

Because sucralose, marketed under the trade name Splenda, is not digested, it doesn't affect blood sugar, although it does create a "laxative effect" in some people who are sensitive to it, Atkins' labels warn.

Atkins products also contain traditional ingredients such as soybean oil, milk fat and cocoa butter along with newfangled ones such as "resistant starches" and "unique gum systems" that cause food to behave differently at the metabolic level, according to Spolar.

That means an Atkins chocolate peanut butter bar with 240 calories and 21 grams of carbohydrates on the government's nutrition label has an Atkins' "net carb" count of only 2 grams because the other carbs "have a minimal impact on blood sugar," the label said.

Atkins' new math has other nutritionists up in arms.

The idea that an Atkins candy bar is better for you than a Snickers or Milky Way bar is ridiculous, according to Katherine Tallmadge, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a weight-loss counselor for 20 years. "That's baloney. I don't think it would be any different from eating any candy bar," she said.

Susan Chandler is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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