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The New York Times reports this morning on the curious dilemma facing food manufacturers as they contemplate the low-carbohydrate universe.

On the one hand, there are products - like potatoes - that simply don't lend themselves to low-carb versions. And, the NYT writes, "even if food producers did manage to come up with lower-carb versions of high-carb foods in the lab, marketing them could risk undermining the producers' core products. But if they do nothing and ignore consumer preferences, sales could decline even further. That puts producers, especially producers of agricultural commodities like wheat and rice, who typically have modest marketing budgets, on the defensive."

Trade organizations are looking for ways to combat the low-carb trend:

    • The Florida Department of Citrus plans a $1.8 million advertising and marketing campaign positioning orange juice as a "smart" carbohydrate, "playing up the health benefits associated with oranges."

    • The Potato Board is rolling out a $4 million, 18-month advertising and marketing campaign suggesting that consumers "Get the skinny on America's favorite vegetable."

    • Perhaps the most aggressive plan being considered is by the USA Rice Federation, which has been contemplating a campaign listing the top-ten reasons to avoid a low-carb diet, including the allegations that low-carb diets cause bad breath and constipation.

According to the NPD Group, about 10 million Americans, or 3.5 percent of the population, currently is on a low-carb diet. However, it is estimated that as many as 40 million Americans have tried Atkins, the South Beach diet, or one of its low-carb brethren - even though there remain some medical questions about the long-term health impact of a low-carb regimen.

The NYT writes that the Atkins Diet wants people to consume just 20 grams of carbohydrates a day in the first stage of the diet. But the Institute of Medicine suggests that 130 grams of carbohydrate is the recommended minimum daily intake for adults and children. People actually eat a lot more than that; the national median carbohydrate intake for men is 200 to 330 grams a day and 180-230 grams for women.

The debate continues.

"First it was fat, now it's carbs," Dr. Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Center for Eating and Weight Disorders at Yale University, tells the NYT. "People see these foods that are being labeled as being low in carbs and they think they're being issued a free pass. They're not paying attention to calories, and they're being duped once again by the food industry into thinking they're doing something positive."
KC's View:
Actually, we'd pay real money to see the commercials on-air about low carb diets causing constipation; it could run back-to-back with the Budweiser commercial with the flatulent horse.

We have to admit that we think one of the reasons retailers are beginning to jump all over the low-carb trend is that, with the introduction of all these new products, there is the promise of new slotting allowances.

The prudent approach, we think, is to cater to the low-carb trend while keeping an eye on the horizon…because we think it is extremely likely that there will be low-carb fallout or backlash. If we were a nutritionist, we'd be trying to figure out ways to position ourselves for the post-low-carb environment.

The bigger problem for retailers and manufacturers is that there are people out there saying things like consumers are being "duped once again by the food industry into thinking they're doing something positive." We're not sure it is as manipulative as all that…but we do think it creates image problems for the business.