Low-carb Explosion

From bunless burgers to buckwheat pancakes, the Atkins diet has sparked a boom in new food products.

January 28, 2004|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

The low-carbohydrate bandwagon rolled onto York Road some weeks ago, hauling pasta, chips, candy bars, ice cream, pancake and bread mixes. The merchandise costs more than enough, but consider the promise, the new beginning, the new you.

Marketeers refer to the low-carb "lifestyle," which seems mostly to be a thing demanding accessorizing. The new La Vida Lo-Carb store stands ready to provide the stuff tossed ashore by this latest dieting tsunami. Mark the low-carbohydrate spaghetti at $3.29 for an 8-ounce box, nearly three times the price of the standard brand. Check the 12-ounce box of buckwheat-pancake mix for $5.79 or the package of four chocolate chip cookies fetching $3.79.

Perhaps the best bargain in the place is the one-buck bumper sticker: "It's the Carbs, Stupid."

Accurate? Well, at least it describes the food-marketing phenomenon of the moment. The nutrition-science consensus is something else, with little bearing on all the folks in food-product development.

Low-carbohydrate food crowds the market, restaurants weigh in with menu offerings, supermarkets tout low-carb sections. Protein is in, starch is out. As bread sales fall, eggs and beef rise, reversing trends of the 1970s through the late 1990s, when low-fat reigned. Fast-food eateries that otherwise form the spiritual core of the American obesity epidemic today offer burgers wrapped in lettuce rather than a bun.

Watch that bun. And those potatoes. And many fruits. And descendants of other foods that have sustained humanity since Tigris-Euphrates was the hottest food conglomerate on the planet. You heard what Dr. Robert C. Atkins said. The low-carb frenzy's chief instigator, Atkins departed this life last spring at 72, but his spirit could hardly be more present. Somewhere he laughs.

Open on a table at La Vida Lo-Carb as a sampler for customers on a Sunday afternoon is a bag of fried pork rinds, a snack once seen in much the same light as the rest of the Elvis health regimen. The fried pork rind -- carbohydrates at absolute zero -- emerges somehow as a chic signature nosh. Just the thing for the person seeking to enter a state of biochemical nirvana in which carbohydrates -- also known as sugar and starch -- burn before they're stored as fat.

For her part, the owner of La Vida Lo-Carb will not claim she has lost much weight curbing carbohydrates. Nonetheless, Leslie F. Miller -- by profession an English teacher, not a dietitian -- embraces the low-carb formula because she says it has helped her feel better. Since she started following the program less than a year ago set forth in Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, she says she no longer suffers migraines, insomnia, depression, even temporary blindness.

How her diet change accounts for these improvements is not quite clear to her, not even after reading "every diet book there is. ... The more I read, the more confusing it gets. All I can go by is how I feel," she says.

Stephen Pesin of Washington, D.C., says he dropped from 260 to 180 pounds on the Atkins diet in a matter of months and has maintained the weight loss for about a year.

"I can eat a lot of food," says the 6-foot-2, 34-year-old computer consultant-turned-actor. "I'm never hungry. I have a lot of energy all the time."

Such testimony joins one of two opposing choruses that have evolved since Atkins published his first book, Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, in 1972. One chorus sings hosannas with tales of rapid weight loss and improved well-being. Another chorus -- composed largely of dietitians and doctors -- condemns the diet as scientifically dubious and potentially dangerous.

Lately a middle ground has emerged. This position holds that the low-carbohydrate approach might have some virtue, especially if the dieter curbs particular carbohydrates such as white rice, refined sugars and flours, while seeking others such as whole grains, brown rice, fruit and vegetables. This view says too little is known about the long-term effects to recommend the extreme versions of this diet, which tend to be the highest in saturated fats and lowest in fruit and vegetables.

The South Beach Diet, for instance, represents a modified low-carbohydrate program.

Given the complexities and contradictions of diet research, it's unlikely certainties will emerge anytime soon. Meanwhile, the low-carbohydrate industry is ablaze. You know something's doing when 7-Eleven -- your local mecca of Ho Hos, Twinkies, Doritos -- hoists a banner out front emblazoned with the Atkins symbol: "Join the low-carb revolution."

Another sign in the window of the 7-Eleven on 36th Street in Hampden shows Atkins low-carb bread, snack chips and candy bars. This is posted right next to the sign offering a 79-cent bonanza of refined sugar and flour: "Try a new Cinnamon Roll Today!"

Last year, 633 new food products appeared on the market with the low- or reduced-carb label, up from 339 new low-carb products in 2002 and 352 in 2001.

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