Fallout from the Low-Carb Craze

May 1, 2005

7 Min Read
Fallout from the Low-Carb Craze

May 2005

Fallout from the Low-Carb Craze

Carbohydrates have been on everyone’s lips in recent years. Much in the style of past, failed attempts at exploiting ingredient-elimination food trends, the recent quixotic expunging of carbohydrates from American diets proved a short-lived, futile attempt at extremism. Without valuable carbohydrates as key factors in the formula, products suffered a dearth of nutrition, functionality and, of course, taste. A reanalysis of the unduly maligned carb, one of the cornerstones of countless foods and beverages, now unfolds — much to the benefit of product designers and consumers everywhere. The following pages pay testament to the myriad benefits of carbohydrates and show that, despite the windmills that periodically cross our paths, the wise designer thinks twice before charging foolhardily ahead.—Douglas J. Peckenpaugh, Managing Editor

The United States is in the midst of a skyrocketing obesity epidemic. Today, more than 60% of American adults are overweight or obese according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and many are investing in diet books, such as those promising rapid weight loss in a matter of weeks by greatly restricting the intake of carbohydrates while eating unlimited amounts of meat and fat.

At the same time, more than 1,000 products have made their way to store shelves in the last two years carrying labels such as "low-carb," "reduced carb," "carbohydrate free," "carb aware," "carb smart" and "carb countdown." While these foods are widely advertised and promoted, many are not regulated by the federal government, leading to confusion over what these labels really mean.

To determine the impact of these parallel trends, the Partnership for Essential Nutrition -- a newly formed coalition of 11 leading nonprofit consumer, nutrition and public-health organizations working to advance public understanding about the essentials of a nutritionally balanced diet -- commissioned a comprehensive survey to track the opinions influencing the dietary behaviors of the American public. Conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, Princeton, NJ, this survey of 1,017 adult Americans aged 18 and over provides an up-to-date look at how Americans view carbohydrates and how the hype over low-carb diets is affecting what and how much people now eat.

Most Americans are concerned with their weight and are making their food decisions accordingly. Today, 9 in 10 (89%) adults are either trying to maintain their current weight (49%) or to lose weight (40%). Of those trying to lose weight, one in five (19%) adults are doing so primarily by reducing the amount of carbohydrates they consume. This is equal to the number of people who are cutting back on calories (20%) and more than those trying to reduce the amount of fat they eat (15%).

Although losing weight remains a key priority for most adults, a surprising number of consumers are less concerned about the amount they eat. This is especially the case for people on low-carbohydrate diets, who believe that extreme low-carb diets are healthy and that carbohydrates, not calories, are what contributes to weight gain. Among those on low-carb diets, 43% say they worry less about the amount they can eat. In contrast, 71% of those who are counting calories say they pay attention to the amount they eat.

Contributing to this view is the growing belief that low-carb diets create weight loss without cutting calories, a view that an overwhelming number of credible scientific studies refute. When asked, nearly half of Americans (47%) agree that people can lose weight by cutting back on carbohydrates without cutting back on calories. In contrast, only 40% still recognize that it's the calories consumed -- not the carbohydrates -- that affects weight loss or gain.

A growing number of Americans associate low-carb diets with the prevention of disease, even though the opposite is true. Although a clear majority of consumers know that a low-fat, high-fiber diet reduces the risk of heart disease, 45% believe that eating less carbs is good for the heart. At the same time, more than a third of the public (36%) now believe that restricting carbohydrate consumption -- which means eating less fruits, vegetables and whole grains -- reduces the risk for certain cancers. Equally troubling, only 21% of Americans know that low-carb diets are not recommended for people with diabetes. In fact, the American Diabetes Association, Alexandria, VA, along with every leading nutrition and public-health group, recommends that for optimal health as well as weight loss, people should consume a diet that includes a variety of carbohydrate-containing foods.

Because of these beliefs about carbohydrates, many Americans are making changes to their diets that are contrary to longstanding nutritional advice. Of special concern, 50% of those on low-carb diets are increasing their consumption of steak, 30% eat more bacon and 21% consume more ham.

At the same time, many low-carb dieters eat fewer foods considered "essential" for disease prevention and health promotion -- fruits, vegetables, whole grains and many low-fat dairy foods. According to the findings, 43% are cutting back on the fruit they eat, and 13% are limiting the amount of vegetables they consume.

The hype over low-carb foods is also affecting the rest of the population, many of whom are now consuming less fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. Compared to the five servings a day of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables recommended by the National Cancer Institute, the survey finds 68% now eat two or less servings of fruit a day and 63% consume two or less servings of vegetables. Moreover, 71% of the public consumes less than the three recommended daily servings of low-fat dairy products, while 15% say they have cut out dairy products altogether.

Compounding the problem, the American public lacks even a rudimentary understanding of what carbohydrates are and their role in the diet. When asked to identify foods that are primarily carbohydrates, most people (61%) could name oatmeal. In contrast, only 40% know that bananas contain carbohydrates while 36% could identify apples and 20% tomatoes. Less than one in five know that broccoli is rich in carbohydrates (17%) or that lettuce contains carbohydrates (12%).

At the same time, most consumers have no understanding of the number of grams of carbohydrates needed every day for good health. Although the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, issued a recommendation that children and adults get a minimum of 130 grams of carbohydrate daily, only 19% of those surveyed knew this fact. Instead, 51% believe that adults need significantly less, while 21% have no idea. Only 10% believe that adults need more.

Americans also need federal intervention to end the confusion over the meaning of "low-carb" claims. When asked how many grams of carbohydrate are in a serving of a low-carb food, 23% admitted having no idea while 18% guessed 11 grams or more, which is significantly higher than the 7-gram limit for alcoholic beverages set by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Equal numbers said there are 0 to 5 grams (28%) or 6 to 10 grams (31%) of carbohydrates in a "low-carb" product.

Despite not understanding what the claims mean, a portion of the public will buy more foods and beverages labeled as "low carb" or "reduced carb" believing it is safer to do so. Almost a third of the public (30%) holds this view.

The Opinion Research Corporation survey was based on telephone interviews with 1,017 adult Americans (509 men and 508 women) aged 18 and over conducted between June 10 and June 13, 2004. To ensure a reliable and accurate representation of the total national adult population, complete interviews were weighted to known proportions for age, gender, geographic region and race. The margin of error for the total sample is plus or minus 3.1%.

This article was originally written as an executive summary of a national opinion survey conducted for the Partnership for Essential Nutrition (www.essentialnutrition.org), a broad-based group of nonprofit consumer, nutrition and public-health organizations. The Partnership formed in 2004 to promote programs, policies and research that will advance public understanding about the essentials of a nutritionally balanced diet.

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