The Dallas Morning News (via Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service); 8/20/2004
Byline: Laura Beil
DALLAS _ Food companies have made low-carb living easier, but dieters may not like the way the cookie crumbles.
Grocery stores are now Low Carb Nation, with chips, cookies, candy and drinks proudly touting their carb, or rather "net carb," content.
No longer must low-carbers pig out only on bacon. But one thing low-carb diets have going for them, researchers say, is monotony. When entire supermarket aisles are off limits, people tend to become bored and eat less. Studies comparing low-carb diets with other approaches have found that people ended up consuming fewer calories, at least in the short term.
"All those carbs which were a big part of most people's diets were suddenly wiped off the plate," says Bonnie Liebman of the consumer advocate Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Now there are low-carb versions of all those foods. They're back on the plate."
And, probably, on the thighs. Research shows that the more variety of foods offered, the more people eat. For example, in one study, moviegoers ate on average 31 pieces of M&M's when given a bowl with seven colors. With 10 colors, consumption rose to 52 pieces.
The same phenomenon occurred with jelly beans. With more color, consumption jumped from 12 pieces on average to 23. For whatever reason, choice encourages eating.
"That's one of the things that will be the downfall of low carb," says Brian Wansink of the University of Illinois, who conducts studies in food psychology. Even if dieters control the frequency of their low-carb snacks, "they will be eating them, when they would not have eaten anything before."
Also, those products may not necessarily be "low" carb. Officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration haven't yet set a definition of low carb, reduced carb, or carb light. An FDA spokeswoman says the agency plans to begin the rule-making process soon.
Until then, "it's a marketing free-for-all," Ms. Liebman says. "It's back to the days before nutrition labels were regulated." Only now it's worse, she believes, because shoppers have come to trust what they read.
Her group asked the FDA in February to set a definition for low carb. So did the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Such rules already exist for other nutrients in food, such as fat and sodium. For example, a "light" food must have at least one-third fewer calories or less than half the fat of the regular version.
The regulation started because low-fat products of diets past were up and down the scale, and shoppers didn't know which claim to trust.
In a strict sense, many of the new low-carb packages violate FDA rules, says food industry lawyer Eric Greenberg of Chicago. No one is supposed to make a misleading claim u even an implied one u about a nutrient, he says.
Yet the FDA has not aggressively cracked down, Greenberg says. One of the few major companies to get a warning is Kansas City-based Russell Stover Candies, which makes treats that go by the name Low Carb. In January, the FDA sent the company a letter, saying that "these products are not lower in carbohydrate that other comparable commercial products." While the letter called the products "misbranded" because the carbohydrate content was not significantly different from comparable products, the document does not say what the carb level should be.
What companies can certainly do is state a carb number. This is the approach of Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay, which recently introduced its own low-carb snacks. The chips, which include Doritos Edge, have a package that says nothing descriptive about carbs. It does include a display of the carb content.
"Consumers are looking for lower carbs, and putting the carb count on the package conveyed the message," says Charles Nicolas, Frito-Lay spokesman.
These Doritos and Tostitos may be lower in carbs. They are not, however, lower in calories. Neither are many other low-carb products. And there, too, the new snack foods may spell the beginning of the end for low-carb diets, doctors say.
When low-fat products were the rage, they became famous diet wreckers because people assumed that low fat meant low calorie.
"People said, 'Geez, Louise _ if it's low fat I can eat three times as much of it,' " Wansink says. "People started overconsuming things."
Often, to protect taste, food manufacturers added sugar, making low-fat snacks just as fattening as regular versions. Some nutritionists even dubbed the trend "The SnackWells" diet, after the popular low-fat cookies.
Today, there are CarbWells. And Carb Solutions. And Carb Control. You can be Carb Smart or Carb Wise.
But because many low-carb foods are just as calorie-heavy as the original, they will counteract another low-carb advantage, experts say.
THAT FULL FEELING
"If you have the same calories in a larger volume, you will eat fewer calories," says Dr. Donna Ryan of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., which specializes in the study of nutrition and obesity.
A large order of McDonald's fries will deliver about the same calories as seven apples. When low-carb calories can be condensed into a few bites of potato chips, one benefit of the low-carb diet u feeling full easier u may be lost.
"There is no metabolic magic in low-carb diets," Dr. Ryan says. Successful long-term dieters also tend to make long-term changes in their eating and exercise habits. "Your weight totally comes down to calories."
Others agree. "You're not going to lose weight on a low-carb diet unless you watch the calories," says Dr. John Foreyt, an obesity expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. People may feel fuller longer on a low-carb diet, he says, and be less inclined to snack. However, if people continue to take in more calories than they burn, they will gain weight no matter how low in carbs they go.
"It still comes down to calories," Dr. Foreyt says.
To avoid any confusion on this issue, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in asking the FDA to set low-carb standards, has also asked that packages be stamped with the unambiguous reminder "Not a Low Calorie Food," if indeed the carb savings doesn't translate into calorie reduction.
Product manufacturers say they aren't trying to spoil diets, but to make it easier for people to stick with them.
"I think when people get into trouble with diets is when they're denied things that they normally eat," says Chuck Teater, vice president of quality at Russell Stover. He says he has started the Atkins diet and has shed 20 pounds and counting. If people feel deprived, they may be more likely to cheat, he says.
Russell Stover plans to continue making its low-carb products, under the new, nondescriptive name Net Carb.
Without a low-carb offering, Teater says, his company can't compete in the snack marketplace. But like many obesity researchers, Dr. Foreyt believes the low-carb marketplace may eventually collapse under its own weight. "Now what's going to happen," he says, "is exactly what we saw happening with the low-fat diet."
The Dallas Morning News.
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