Taking a bite out of bread

The popularity of Atkins and other low- carb diets has created sudden winners and losers among food producers.

November 30, 2003|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Robert O. Hirsch PROVIDENCE, R.I. - The carbohydrate-laden breakfast spread of croissants, cinnamon rolls, muffins, pineapple coffee cake, bagels - and not a slice of bacon in sight - was a fitting start to the day for a hundred or so bakers who gathered at a college campus here to vindicate their products in the face of a recent and potent threat: low-carb diets.

As millions of dieters turn to bunless hamburgers, pasta-free lasagna and other low-carb fare to trim their bellies, the economic ripples are widespread.

The popularity of the Atkins and South Beach diets has helped turn the long-respected Food Pyramid upside down and created sudden winners and losers in the food industry. With protein and fat in and carbohydrates out, some of the nation's largest food producers are going on the defensive. Among them is the $11 billion bread industry, which convened a national summit this month to fend off blame for America's obesity problem.

"How did the 'Mother Teresa' of food turn into 'Rodney Dangerfield'?" Robert O. Hirsch, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois-based Baking Industry Suppliers Association, asked during a panel discussion.

The diet has been a boon for some industries. Egg, cheese and bacon sales are up. The beef industry, after a generation-long decline, is experiencing a 10 percent turnaround in consumption. The sustained popularity of low-carb diets - apparently more popular among men than many diet fads of the past - has spawned its own low-carb segment of the food industry, valued as high as $15 billion.

Manufacturers are promoting everything from low-carb tortillas to low-carb beer. YUM! Brands Inc.'s KFC chain recently pulled television commercials that promoted its chicken as low-carb after the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a complaint with the federal government charging the ads were deceptive.

While fried chicken and beer producers pitching themselves as healthful fare might be laughable to some, the makers of products high in carbohydrates find themselves having to fend off strangely negative perceptions.

At the daylong bread summit, symbolically held at a culinary school during National Bread Month, speakers counterattacked bread's new bad-boy image with devotions of what is good about bread. There was talk about creating a slogan to return buyers to bread - a foodstuff around for 5,000 years since ancient Egyptians mixed flour, water and wild yeast.

"We need to stop and think about what makes us fat," said Kent Symms, owner of Farmer Direct Foods Inc., a Kansas wheat producer. "Is it really bread and carbs, or is it how much we eat, and how many all-you-can-eat buffets we have access to?"

Sounding like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, people made personal affirmations proclaiming their devotion to bread as they stood behind huge artisan bread displays created for the occasion by master-baking students.

"Hello, my name is Carolyn, and I eat bread," said Carolyn O'Neil, a nutritionist and moderator as the crowd erupted in laughter.

Bread seminars

Attendees participated in seminars on the nutrition and business of bread. For lunch - over sandwiches, naturally - they heard talks such as one titled, "Building a Bread Culture in America: A Bread Renaissance."

On the Atkins diet, people can eat as much cheese, eggs, meat and other protein-laden foods as they want, but must strictly limit carbohydrates and avoid refined carbs like white flour. White bread, pasta, potatoes and other carbo-loaded foods are all but prohibited.

The diet has been an issue since Dr. Robert C. Atkins, a cardiology specialist in New York, published it in 1972. His theory is that without the sugars that carbohydrates produce for energy, the human body turns instead for fuel to its stored reserves of fat. The finding conflicted with other medical and common knowledge that had long emphasized reducing fats and maintaining a variety of fruits, vegetables and grains in one's diet. (Atkins died in April at age 72 from head injuries from a fall outside his Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine in Manhattan.)

Atkins' plan began gaining popularity in the mid-1990s. Recent studies helped to validate the diet, which has about 14 million followers. The New England Journal of Medicine reported this year that people on the diet lost twice as much weight in six months as others did on conventional low-fat diets. It also reported that followers of the Atkins plan reduced their cholesterol - another conclusion that defied earlier wisdom about fat and protein.

Orange growers worry

The estimated 20 million or more people in the United States following the diet and similar ones such as the low-carb South Beach Diet, Protein Power and one called The Zone, constitute about 10 percent of the nation's adults.

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