Also apparent was the absence of "low-carb," even though carbohydrates continue to be a buzz, according to Lawrence Shiman, v.p., Opinion Dynamics Corp., Cambridge, Ma. What has changed is carb language. Shiman told FMI attendees that despite the demise of the low-carb diet, the phenomenon is still one that every food industry organization must address. "Carb-conscious consumers still make up one-third of all U.S. consumers," he said.
The key here is the term "carb-consciousness," which has taken two directions. One is low-/no-calorie. Here's where traditional sugar-(carb-)sweetened products are out and non-nutritive sweetened ones are in.
The other direction, which is new to many consumers, is the evolution of "low-carbs" to "slow carbs," or "low-glycemic carbs." Indeed, at FMI, there was a great deal of low-glycemic talk. However, marketers are approaching this trend a bit more cautiously than they did with low carb just a year ago.
Low-glycemic carbs are those carbohydrates that are digested slower than other carbs. They do not cause peaks in blood sugar immediately after consumption.
Many of the past year's low-carb foods and beverages are based on the principles of low-glycemic carbs. However, today's low-glycemic approach, rather than the low-carb approach, is considered more balanced, as it takes into account components other than just carbohydrates in a food system. It factors in the effect these other components have on carbohydrate metabolism and weight loss. For example, research shows that when low-glycemic carbs are coupled with high-quality protein, weight loss diets can be more successful.
In a clinical trial, the weight loss of overweight/obese men and women ages 18 to 65 was evaluated for 12 weeks. One group was on a traditional low-fat diet and decreased portion sizes to shave off at least 500 calories a day. The second group was told simply to eat until hunger was satisfied. They were instructed to follow a "modified-carbohydrate diet," which was consistent with the recommendations outlined in The South Beach Diet™ (whole grains and lean protein). The dieters on the modified-carbohydrate eating plan lost significantly more weight and body fat compared to their counterparts. They also experienced significant improvements in triglycerides and the ratio of total to high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or "good" cholesterol. Research suggests improving these factors are linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
Sales data confirms that consumers are recognizing that not all carbs are created equal. At FMI, analysts from ACNielsen, New York, showed that products labeled "for your low-carb lifestyle" actually topped the list of 11 good-for-you segments tracked by the company for generating the highest growth in the first 12 weeks of 2005. In fact, this segment showed an increase of 20.2% as compared to the same period in 2004. But, one must look beyond that first 12 weeks, as many low-carb foods were just debuting during that period in 2004. The reality is that low-carb sales have been slowing steadily ever since the segment's one-week peak in mid-June of 2004 when sales were 200+% up from the same week in 2003. The most current data available-for the one-week period ending March 19, 2005-shows that sales of low-carb products were down 2.5%, as compared to the same week in 2004. This was the first one-week sales loss for the segment since ACNielsen began tracking it in 2000.
Some of this may be the result of low-carb product marketers changing their strategy and focusing on sugar and calories. Indeed, the category of good-for-you foods that ACNielsen analysts identify as standing out from the others in terms of ability to generate especially strong and sustained growth is no-/low-sugar.
"Clearly, many consumers want to lose weight and eat more healthily overall," said Alice Fawver, senior v.p. of marketing at ACNielsen to FMI attendees. "The sales numbers show that people will flock toward diets that promise results. However, keeping people on such diets has proven more challenging. The good-for-you product segments that are enjoying the most sustained success are those that offer health benefits without requiring a whole new way of eating."