07/09/2004 - 22:00

Fight on for low-carb consumers

07/09/2004 - 22:00

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Potatoes for breakfast? That’s just one of the ways Western Australia’s food producers are fighting fad diets. Julie-anne Sprague reports on the implications for consumers and retailers.

Fight on for low-carb consumers

Potatoes for breakfast? That’s just one of the ways Western Australia’s food producers are fighting fad diets. Julie-anne Sprague reports on the implications for consumers and retailers.

 

After decades as the diet industry’s principal target, fat is no longer public enemy number one in the most wanted stakes.

Now, thanks to the Atkins and South Beach diets, among others, it’s carbohydrates that are in the crosshairs.

In fact the latest diet fad to sweep the world regards fat as a friend.

While the popularity of these diets has probably peaked in the US, it nevertheless has had a significant impact on all levels of the food and beverage business there.

Western Australians, on the other hand, are yet to fully embrace diets that favour meat and cheese over bread and fruit.

While health experts might welcome this cautious resistance to diet fads, many in the food business have noticed a change in attitude towards carbohydrate intake.

Some in the industry believe there is a lack of local products to meet demand.

While the Atkins and South Beach diets may not be top-of-mind for all customers in the shops and restaurants of Perth, Garry Jowett, general manager of The Good Life Health Stores, says low-carb food is a growing category area. And more products are likely to line the shelves in the next 12 months.

Mr Jowett, who is responsible for 20 retail outlets in Western Australia, said he was finding it difficult to secure suppliers to meet the demand for low-carb food products.

“There’s been a bit of a swell and there’s plenty of product out there, like low-carb cakes and muffins,” he told WA Business News.

“There is a lot of consumer interest and there are some products being made that are hard to source.

“It’s a growing category. The big difference in Australia to what we see in the US is the variety; there’s so much more over there.

“We’re trying to source some but the US suppliers are saying Atkins will look for one national distributor. I spoke to one supplier and they can’t supply us, they’re barely keeping up with the demand over there.”

To ensure their product meets consumers’ changing carbohydrate needs, Western Potatoes is keeping a close eye on the global trend and for the first time this year surveyed consumers about their opinion of low-carb diets.

According to Western Potatoes marketing officer Emma Kalo, the Atkins Diet has had an impact on consumers’ perceptions of potatoes.

“I think it has had an impact on the way people view carbohydrates and their eating pattern,” she said.

“We’ve managed to look at things like eating potatoes at breakfast and lunch because the trend of eating no carbs is coming to an end. I think that is because people can’t sustain it.

“I think people now reduce the carbs they eat and we have to look at different ways of getting people to eat potatoes. We’ve got the potato capsules in the supermarkets promoting people to take a potato and microwave it for lunch.”

Ms Kalo said while there had been no direct impact on sales as yet, one in four respondents to a recent survey said they would consider trying a low-carb diet.

Western Potatoes would continue to track the effect of low-carb diets on sales, she said, and would continue to market potatoes as a low-fat, highly nutritious food, or a good carb to consume.

“There’s no fat, no cholesterol and it’s GI (glycemic index) isn’t as high as rice, pasta, and white bread,” Ms Kalo said.

“We’re trying to say, if you’re going to eat a carb, eat a potato.”

For those who have missed the low-carb diet phenomenon, millions of Americans (firstly) and, now, people worldwide have switched from low-fat meals of pasta and rice to a diet that embraces the high-protein delights of fish, chicken, eggs and vegetables.

An avid Atkins follower even gets to indulge in foods high in saturated fat, such as cheese, butter and cream.

And let’s not forget all that bacon.

But in the process of embracing foods once ‘forbidden’, consumers are creating a new set of foods to avoid.

Consumers in WA are just starting to see the tangible effects of a food industry gearing up to ensure they get a seat at the low-carb dinner table.  

Dogswamp Good Life Heath Store naturopath Catherine Hancock said demand for low-carb alternatives had been growing for about two years.

“We stock a lot of nutritional bars for people to have just as a snack. They’re high in protein and low in fat, and I’m noticing more products come on to the market from bigger retailers,” she said.

Low-carb breads, cereals, and chocolate bars now line the shelves at selected supermarkets, health food stores, and bakeries.

Even the fast food giant renowned for healthier eating, Subway, is offering a low-carb alternative, and Bakers Delight has started marketing a low-carb bread.

Melbourne-based Empower Foods was established three years ago to produce low-carbohydrate foods.

It’s one of the few Australian-owned companies manufacturing only low-carb foods, including tomato sauce, soups, cookie mixes, and chocolates.

Empower national sales manager Mark Thurlow said the company supplied more than 700 outlets nationally with strong growth each year.

Many manufacturers were promoting low-carb foods, he said, but like the low-fat craze of the 1990s, consumers needed to understand the terms.

“We’ve found that there are a number of products that are marketed as low-carb, like one bar that has 16 grams of carbs and 18 grams of sugar. That’s astronomical for a product that’s supposed to be low in carbohydrate,” Mr Thurlow said.

“So while it might be lower in carbohydrate than the regular product it might still be high in carbs.”

Despite the growth in demand for low-carb foods Mr Thurlow doubted Australians would be as enthusiastic for low-carb diets as people in the US.

“There are a lot of lobby groups backed by food manufacturers that have watched what has happened in the US with horror, and they won’t let it happen here,” he said.

The diets may have provided new product growth for some food manufacturers, but the outcomes for staple foods has been disastrous.

In Florida the Atkins and South Beach diets have been blamed for a significant reduction in sales of citrus.

In response, the Florida Department of Citrus launched a major marketing campaign to combat falling sales and is reported to have threatened legal action against those who disparage citrus without scientific evidence.

Part of the department’s reported $1.8 million marketing campaign outlined that a healthy lifestyle should begin with a balanced breakfast, which includes a glass of 100 per cent orange juice.

WA Fruit Growers Association executive manager Robert McFerran said the industry had not noticed a direct effect of low-carb diets on fruit sales.

“There seemed to be a number of well-respected nutrition experts who came out pretty early and said you have to eat sensible proportions of food and have a wide range of fruits,” he said.

Bakeries are feeling the pinch, however.

In response, one of the nation’s biggest franchises, Bakers Delight, has adopted a low-carb, low GI strategy for one product line, its Cape Seed loaf.

According to New Norcia Bakeries owner Kingsley Sullivan, while commercial bakeries around the world were feeling the low-carb effect, the boutique baking sector was experiencing strong demand.

“People who understand the reality of health issues and don’t go on trend diets are eating bread,” Mr Sullivan said.

“One of the problems with bread is that it all gets lumped together. Commercially sliced bread has 13 ingredients in it and eight of those are chemicals; people are staggered when I tell them that.

“I make a sourdough here that only has three ingredients. I think more people are appreciating what goes into their food.

“Demand has gone through the roof and I would say the boutique or artesian bakers is the only sector that’s growing. It’s not so much about healthy eating as it is about quality.”

Counting Carbs

  • Food retailers report an increase in consumer interest for low-carb products.
  • Greater variety of low-carb foods from Australian and US food manufacturers – snack bars, breads, cereals, chocolates, soups, sauces, and condiments.
  • In its annual consumer research Western Potatoes has for the first time asked whether individuals surveyed would consider a low-carb diet.
  • The Good Life Health Stores, says low-carb food is a growing category area. And more products are likely to line the shelves in the next 12 months.
  • New Norcia Bakeries sees the fad as something that will only push consumers’ flight to quality produce.
  • Bakers Delight has brought out a low-carb bread and Subway is marketing carb-conscious wraps.

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