Carb Counting Extends to Summer Eats

From the looks of most new treats on grocery store shelves this year, these will be the low-carb days of summer.

Everything from ice-cold cola, lemonade and beer to ice cream, pizza, burgers and chocolate has been unceremoniously stripped of at least some carbohydrates to keep up with the low-carb lunacy that’s gripped food companies, the media and the public alike.

Even the Food Network (search) launched a new show called “Low Carb and Lovin’ It” on Sunday.

“Everyone is looking for the new and improved version of their product,” said Barb Stuckey, vice president of marketing for Mattson & Co. (search), a product innovation firm for the food and beverage industry. “Low carb buys them that.”

The low-carb craze stems from the Atkins diet (search), which has its followers eating meat, eggs, cheese and other high-protein — and often high-fat — foods while avoiding potatoes, bread and sweets that are high in carbohydrates and sugar. Despite the Atkins recommendation to shun desserts and sugary foods, companies are creating everything from soda to ice cream to appeal to dieters with promises of low carbs and sweetness.

Coca-Cola Co. plans to unveil a new low-carb Coke this summer called Coca-Cola C2 (search), with half the carbs and fewer calories. Pepsi will also launch a lower-calorie, lower-carb cola late this summer called Pepsi Edge (search).

Coca-Cola Co.'s Minute Maid already has low-cal, low-carb choices with Minute Maid Light Lemonade, Raspberry Passion, Mango Tropical and Guava Citrus. Each beverage contains 5 calories per 8-fluid-ounce serving, though the replacement of sugar with artificial sweeteners is noticeable in the weak, slightly chemical flavor of the drinks.

Da Vinci Gourmet (search) has come up with sugar-free, carb-free versions of its Chai tea concentrate and other coffee and tea syrups.

“Beverages are the category that needs to reduce carbohydrates the most,” Stuckey said. “Many of the additional calories we’ve consumed that have made us fat come in the form of beverages.”

There’s even Michelob Ultra low-carb beer, though Bud Light ads point out that all light beers are relatively low-carb.

Makers of sweet-tooth treats are also jumping aboard the low-carb train. Breyers has a new line of “CarbSmart” ice creams and Klondike treats made with the artificial sweetener sucralose, or Splenda (search).

The vanilla has 10 total grams of carbs per serving versus 15 grams per serving in the original Breyers vanilla. The ice creams taste close to the real thing, but those with sensitive stomachs beware: Artificial sweeteners can cause tummy upset.

Candy maker Russell Stover has a variety of low-carb chocolate candies, also made with Splenda, which were introduced when carb-conscious consumers began jumping ship. The milk chocolate miniatures, for instance, have only .2 carbs per piece.

“We had a lot of customers leaving us because they were going on a low-carb diet,” said John O’Hara, vice president of marketing for Russell Stover Candies (search).

While the nutrition fad fueled by the Atkins and South Beach diets has the industry scrambling to keep up, the media is adding to frenzy.

“The media coverage is way out of whack with how consumers are eating,” according to Stuckey who said only about 4 to 10 percent of Americans are actually on a low-carb regimen. “From what you read in the press, every single person in this country is watching their carbohydrates, and that’s just not true.”

Still, that hasn’t stopped the list of carb-zapped foods and drinks from growing longer and more dizzying. There are now low-carb cereals, granola bars, ketchup, pasta, bread, crackers and cookies.

Among the more ludicrous answers to the craze have come from the fast food industry — with McDonald’s and Burger King offering “low-carb” Big Macs and Whoppers, meaning burgers without the buns, and pizza chains like Donatos coming out with “No Dough” pizzas, which are literally all the ingredients sizzled together sans crust.

“It’s a blatant attempt to cash in on the trend. It is just ridiculous," said Stuckey, who is concerned that low-carb fad will result in bad nutritional choices.

“The problem is that bread and pasta are good for you. They have redeeming qualities,” she said. “Baked goods full of empty carbohydrate calories should be the bad guys, not the pasta, potatoes and bread. I’m worried that has gotten lost.”

But Stuckey predicts that like most food trends this one will go the way of past dietary obsessions with calories, sodium and fat — with reduced carb choices keeping their place on grocery store shelves but carb-free foods and drinks retaining only a fraction of the market.

“The low-carb craze will most certainly result in Americans being more conscious of their carbohydrate intake,” she said. “You’ll start to see more and more products in the middle ground between super low-carbohydrate or carb-free and the original versions.”