When the low-carb diet craze ignited faster and stronger than anything the food industry had ever seen, flat-bread maker Damascus Bakeries knew it had to do something or watch its sales, well, flatten.
In fact, the owner of the nearly 75-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., commercial bakery, David Mafoud, had his own motivations for finding a solution: He also had been cutting back on carbs in a successful effort that helped him shed 20 pounds from his 6-foot-5 frame. So his bakers began tinkering with their traditional recipes.
They cut out the flour, which contains most of the carbohydrates, and substituted dense proteins extracted from grains such as flax, wheat and soy. And they bulked up the flat bread with oat fiber to increase its moisture and fiber content.
“We were making a muscle-brew,” Mafoud says, referring to the dense mixture of protein isolates and fiber that substituted for the flour.
The result? Sandwich roll-ups with reduced amounts of carbohydrates, 10 grams of protein and about quadruple the amount of fiber found in a few prunes. The calorie count is 110, about the same as the bakery’s regular roll-ups.
And there’s the rub with many of the hundreds of “low-carb” processed products hitting the supermarkets these days: most contain no caloric advantage. Hence, unless consumers are following highly restricted carbohydrate diets such as the Atkins program, the processed products may not help them lose weight. Instead, the new products may persuade some dieters to indulge in hefty servings of low-carb items, without giving much thought to calories, nutritionists say.
As a result, some diet experts think the low-carb craze has the potential to be just as confusing -- and potentially hazardous -- to consumers as yesteryear’s low-fat craze, when many people got the idea that they could indulge without weight gain in unlimited quantities of pasta and pretzels because they were low in fat. There were some positive sides to that movement, however: Some low-fat products actually offered significant caloric reductions -- such as skim milk and reduced-fat cheeses and creams -- and thus were beneficial to dieters.
Now, consumers are getting the message that they can lose weight and still eat plenty of bread, pastry, ice cream and candy, as long as it’s low carb, says Joanne Slavin, a nutritionist and a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition.
The reason that the Atkins high protein and fat diet has worked for some people is because it banished processed foods, she says. “Now, people are eating all this junk labeled “low net carbs,” and they’re taking in just as many calories and they’re not going to lose weight.”
The popularity of low-carb diets has inspired nearly every processed food maker these days to concoct low-carb versions to respond to consumer demand. Even pet food now comes in a low-carb formulation.
At the Institute of Food Technologists trade show in Las Vegas earlier this month, ingredient makers were showcasing substitute ingredients for the now reviled white flour and sugar that included dense proteins made from whey, soy, hemp, flax and oats along with gums, cellulose and other bulking agents. The companies were doling out samples of foods their ingredients could be used in, including soy soft-serve ice cream substitutes, soy pizza crusts and tortillas created from whey proteins.
“It’s like a fire out of control,” Slavin says. “Every diet program, every food manufacturer, all the big Wal-Marts of the world have said we only want products with low net carbs.”
Ironically, the Atkins and South Beach diets that fueled the low-carb frenzy advocate consumption of whole foods such as meats, fish, cheeses, poultry, eggs and vegetables. The programs urge dieters to steer clear of most processed foods. Even Atkins Nutritionals, which has brought forth a line of processed low-carb candy bars, bagels and pancake and waffle mixes, advises dieters to consider the processed item as an occasional treat -- eating at most, two a day -- rather than making them the mainstay of their diets.
“You can’t give people the notion that as long as they’re just eating low carbs, they’re eating healthy,” says Colette Heimowitz, Atkins Nutritionals vice president of education.
As with most nutritionists, Heimowitz agrees that consumers can lose weight on any number of low-calorie, balanced diets, in which calories (from any food group) ingested add to less than the amount of energy expended daily.
The other choice, Heimowitz says, is to severely restrict carbohydrate intake to as little as 20 grams a day in the first few weeks -- as Atkins recommends -- while eating unlimited amounts of meats, cheeses and full-fat dairy products which do not contain carbs. But just a few cups of green vegetables -- which contain some carbs -- can easily put one over that 20 gram carb limit and foil weight loss, she says. With all the low-carb hype, some consumers are lumping the two approaches together -- a strategy unlikely to work, Heimowitz and other nutritionists say. Atkins itself may be adding to the confusion, Heimowitz acknowledges, by selling processed foods under that Atkins label that contain significant amounts of calories and a fair number of carbs. A tiny, one-ounce Atkins blueberry muffin, for example, contains 140 calories and 21 grams of carbs. “A low-carb muffin is still high in calories,” says Heimowitz. “As long as it is eaten in consideration of total calories, any carb reduction is a step in the right direction.”
Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientific officer at Weight Watchers International, the popular diet plan that advocates a low-calorie, balanced diet, agrees. “If people truly believe they can cut carbs and eat the same things they were by substituting lower-carb versions, they are kidding themselves and spending a lot of money to do it,” she says.
Adding to the confusion for consumers is that there are no government-approved standards for labeling such products, which are variously described as no carb, low-carb, low net carb, reduced carb and smart carb.
The Food and Drug Administration permits manufacturers to use a “net carbs” definition, which is calculated by subtracting the fiber content (fiber contains carbs) from total carbohydrates to produce a net carb count. An FDA spokesman said the agency planned to start considering guidelines later this year about the maximum amounts of carbohydrates that can be contained in products that promote themselves as low in carbs or net carbs.
Many of the carb claims are “grossly misleading,” says Gil Wilshire, founder of the Carbohydrate Awareness Council, a consumer group that advocates controlling carbs, but getting most of them through nutrient dense whole foods.
Wilshire once needed two airline seats to accommodate his 345-pound girth and has lost 90 pounds by sticking largely to meats, vegetables and full fat dairy products while eliminating most “white” and processed foods such as flour and sugar products.
Hence, it’s a wise idea for overweight people to reduce their carbohydrate intake, particularly from processed foods, as long as they don’t supplant them with as many or more low-carb servings. Saying no to that bread basket at a restaurant, for instance, is usually a wise idea.
One advantage of low-carb products, manufacturers and some nutritionists say, is that the products may be more filling and less likely to spike one’s blood sugar than foods made from white flour, which can trigger hunger and act on some peoples’ metabolisms like gas being poured on a flame.
The Atkins and South Beach diets contend that those spikes in blood sugar lead to cravings and cause dieters to eat more, whereas fat and protein are more filling and keep hunger at bay longer.
“Any protein and fat will slow the release of carbs into the blood stream,” Heimowitz says.
Jean Heggie, a spokesman for Solae Co., a soy protein producer, agrees: “Low-carb diets that are high protein can deliver satiety and help one be full longer.” She also notes that some studies have shown that soy protein may have health benefits such as helping to reduce cholesterol.
Nutritionist Slavin agrees that the soy protein -- isolates essentially brewed from the soybean -- that is being substituted in some low-carb foods is a healthy protein because it comes from a plant rather than animal source. But she contends that most Americans already get enough or too much protein in their diets from meats, eggs, poultry and fish, so the extra protein in the low-carb products turns into unnecessary calories that just pack on pounds.
Some of the products marketed as low carb also can load on more fat to replace the carbs. Consider Hershey’s “1 gram sugar carb” Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, which cost nearly twice as much as Hershey’s regular version and are smaller. Each two-piece, 1.2 ounce low-carb package contains 110 calories from fat, or 91 fat calories per ounce. The larger 1.5 ounce regular variety has just 120 calories from fat, or 118 fat calories per ounce. The total caloric savings is a relatively modest 15%: 153 per ounce for the regular kind versus 133 per ounce for the low-carb variety.
To lower the total net carb count, manufacturers often add artificial or “functional” fiber, which can also increase fullness by delaying stomach emptying and slowing the rate of absorption in the small intestine. These “resistant fibers” -- which are often chemically derived from starches such as tapioca, amylose corn and chicory root -- also help lower the net carb count.
Fred Caporaso, a professor of food science and nutrition at Chapman University in Orange, says that though it is healthier for people to get their fiber from whole foods, many consumers want a “quick fix.”
“The manufacturers are trying to give the public what they want. People want fiber in fast form. Maybe that’s wrong. You could educate them that they could eat a variety of foods to get it, but you know college students -- you can have a cafeteria with the best choices available and they’ll still come out with three large cokes.”
Some nutritionists and physicians worry that the sugar alcohols -- high intensity sweeteners -- that are being used to replace sugar in low-carb products are potentially misleading. There are a number of varieties, some of which contain nearly as many calories as sugar and some of which can spike blood sugar.
Whereas the goals of the Atkins’ and South Beach diets are to wean dieters’ appetites from sweets, the sugar alcohols may do just the opposite, says Dr. Carson Liu, medical director of the Surgical Weight Control Center in Los Angeles. He has performed more than 1,000 bariatric surgeries on obese patients, and puts them on strict low-carb diets both before and after the surgery. He’d always recommend a piece of fish over a protein PowerBar, for example.
“Our society craves such sweet things. Our pizzas have so much more flavors than in Italy. In Europe, everything is so much more natural, compared to the way Americans spice and color everything up” with artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors and fibers, he says. “We won’t know their effect till decades from now.”
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How low can it go and still taste good?
To reduce the carbohydrates in processed food, the primary source of the carbs -- flour and sugar -- is reduced or eliminated. The challenge is to find a substitute for the taste and texture.
That’s a tall order for a product such as bread, which is mostly flour, and it’s the reason why some low-carb products have an unappealing taste or a strange texture. The quality of the products is improving, however. Here are some of the ways food companies are reducing carbs in products.
Substitute protein for the flour
Those proteins can be derived from sources including soy beans, wheat (gluten), milk or eggs. These ingredients boost the protein counts of processed foods and substitute for some of the bulk in foods. Soy protein, for example, is made into various forms, including one called “soy protein isolate.” Unfortunately for the calorie count, however, protein has the same 4 calories per gram that carbs do.
Increase fiber content
“Resistant starches” can be added to increase fiber, hence reducing the “net carbs” in a packaged food. These starches are not digestible by intestinal enzymes and occur naturally in some plants. Although they are carbs, the starches are said not to affect blood sugar because they pass through the system without being digested. These functional fibers -- derived from corn, wheat, potatoes, banana or tapioca -- have names such as inulin, a chicory root derivative, and ActiStar, derived from tapioca starch. Gums and stabilizers can be added to boost fiber content.
Substitute the sugars
Sugar alcohols, called polyols, can be substituted for sugar. These are sweeteners, with names such as isomalt, lactitol, mannitol, xylitol and sorbitol. They are still carbs, but are usually subtracted in “net carb” counts because manufacturers claim they do not hike blood sugar. (Some types of polyols, however, are said to hike blood sugar more than others, so claims about their effect on blood sugar are controversial.) They pass through the large intestine and are digested by fermentation, and some can cause digestive problems or diarrhea. They contain calories ranging from 0.2 per gram for erythritol to 3 per gram for hydrogenated starch hydrosolates, coming close to the 4 calories per gram in sugar.
-- Valerie Reitman