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The Boston Globe

March 17, 2004



In the comic strip "Arlo and Janis," Arlo offers his wife a piece of toast. A shocked Janis recoils in the next panel, shouting, "No!"

"Carbohydrates," she sniffs.

By the time something hits the daily comics, you know it's everywhere. Carb phobia is a national phenomenon, and manufacturers are flocking to cash in. What some analysts see as a $25 billion market in reduced carbohydrate foods—breads, chips, candy, even ice cream—is being snapped up by the public. Consumers spent the last two decades checking food labels for fat content and supporting a low-fat, no-fat industry. Now that the industry has decided to respond to a different culprit, questions arise: What exactly is being done to a loaf of bread or a glass of milk to lower the grams of carbohydrates—and is it good for you?

A nation raised on milk has many choices in the refrigerator case. The latest, however, is not called milk. Last December, Chelsea-based HP Hood Inc. introduced the Atkins-approved Hood Carb Countdown Dairy Beverage. According to Hood spokesperson Lynne Bohan, the natural sugars in milk are reduced using "proprietary technology"; Splenda No Calorie Sweetener is added for sweetening. Since real sugar is a pure carbohydrate and Splenda has only a trace of carbohydrates, the result is lower carbs, therefore fewer calories. Hood is marketing the drink nationally, Bohan says, and sales are good.

Reducing carbs in baked goods—after all, what are breads and cakes but mostly carbs and fat?—is more complex. The process usually involves substituting soy protein or wheat gluten for flours and then adding fiber. Andrew Siegel of When Pigs Fly bakery in York, Maine, explains the company's low-carb loaf. Their regular bread has 20 to 25 grams of carbohydrates. With wheat gluten substituted for some whole wheat flour, the low-carb bread comes out at 8 grams of carbs per slice. Since added fiber passes through the human digestive system without being absorbed, it is subtracted from the carb count on labeling; the company mixes both wheat bran and flax seeds into the dough. Now each slice has 6 grams of carbohydrates.

Some manufacturers understand these baking nuances because they were already making products for diabetics, who have to watch carbohydrate and sugar intake. Synergy Diet, a West Coast-based company that sells about $5 million of products a year over a website, began marketing their low-carbohydrate, sugar-free products in 1997. Now sales are primarily to those looking for lower carb products, says president Jason Butcher. The company's breads get their high protein and fiber values by substituting wheat gluten, soy flour, oat flour, and almond and other nut meals for white flour.

Many commercially made cakes, such as Entenmann's butter loaf, come to a lower carb count by subtracting sugar alcohols, which are mainly sugar-free sweeteners, from the total count. Elizabeth Braithwaite, database manager of ESHA Research in Salem, Ore., explains that in this country, "total carbohydrates are determined by subtraction." For each product, she says, fat, protein, ash, and water are subtracted from the total gram weight of the food; the remainder is counted as carbohydrates. By this definition, the total carb value would include sugar alcohols and fiber, as well as sugar and starch, she says. But according to a recent newsletter from the consumer watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest, manufacturers are using the nomenclature of the low-carb diets and subtracting fiber and sugar alcohols claiming they have "minimal impact on blood sugars."

The tricky part of this is that the Food and Drug Administration has not yet defined "low carb" in the same way that the federal agency has decided what determines "low fat" or "low calorie" on labeling. Late last week as part of a broad antiobestity campaign, the FDA announced that the agency will start defining what can be labeled "low" or "reduced" carbohydrates. However, no timetable was announced. Ellen Haas, founder of and former undersecretary of agriculture, applauds the recognition of the problem. "I can't see it happening for a couple of years," she says. "At least [they're] acknowledging there is a serious problem in consumer information." But there are ways to get things done quickly, she adds, and the agency does not seem to be doing that.

Currently manufacturers are making their own calculations. This is a red flag for some nutritionists. Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for CSPI, sees danger here. "Net carb declarations should be banned," Liebman says, "because they undermine the trust people have in the nutrition facts panel." In her article in the Nutrition Action Healthletter, she takes issue with net carbs, saying the science "isn't there" to prove low net carbs will mean weight loss. "Minimal impact on your blood sugar doesn't mean minimal impact on your hips," she says.

"Doesn't this give you a feeling of deja vu?" asks Haas. A boom in low-fat products 20 years ago led to the FDA's stepping in with standards and instituting nutrition labeling. "The industry has a free rein on formulating new products," she says, but if people find they aren't losing or maintaining weight eating those products, "high skepticism" will follow.

Both Haas and Liebman see some benefits. "Some breads have more fiber," says Liebman, "which can't be wrong." Adds Haas: "It does make sense to be carb aware, to minimize sugars."

Some experts worry that teaching the public just a little nutrition can't be a good thing. For instance, Atkins, South Beach, and other diets highlight such concepts as glycemic levels (blood sugar levels) that are little understood by laymen. Judy Phillips, nutritionist for the South End Community Health Center's childhood obesity program and a consultant to Au Bon Pain, says the low-carb diets tend to presume "everyone is insulin resistant, which isn't true.

"People think that high-protein, low-carb diets have magical effects," she says, when the reality is that water loss in the first few weeks of these programs is what leads to good news on the scale. Phillips, Haas, and Liebman are all concerned that the reduced-carb products will encourage consumers to add more goodies to their diets—with little regard for calories. Many are "refusing to accept the simple mathematics of calories," says Phillips.

And so the old dieting logic comes into play: A calorie is a calorie. It doesn't matter where it comes from. Balance and moderation are still key, says Haas.

As for a dairy beverage made with Splenda—which is approved by the FDA and accepted by CSPI as safe—Haas thinks "there's a need for a limit in what kind of liberty we take with a natural product with nutritional benefits. Is it necessary to substitute the little bit of sugar with an artificial product?" she asks. "Wouldn't it be better to limit your Krispy Kreme intake?"

Perhaps. But—memo to dieters—Krispy Kreme just announced plans to develop a low-sugar doughnut.


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