JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- "Low-carb" foods are elbowing for space on grocery store shelves and fast-food counters. Everyone is jumping on the low-carb craze -- even though just what low-carb means and whether following such a diet will help you lose weight, or is even safe, is debatable.
The Publix supermarket chain is selling several brands of reduced-carbohydrate loaf breads.
Harris Teeter offers a Low Carb Corner with everything from salad dressing to energy bars.
Subway is selling low-carb sandwich wraps, and Blimpie just added a Carb Counter Menu.
An all low-carb grocery store just opened in Pittsburgh. Last year, companies introduced 633 new foods billed as "low-carb," compared to just 47 in 1995, according to Productscan Online, a company that tracks new product trends.
Everyone is jumping on the low-carb craze -- even though just what low-carb means and whether following such a diet will help you lose weight, or is even safe, is still up for debate.
In August, 73 percent of those polled by food trend tracker Supermarket Guru said they were on a low-carb diet. The Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet and others emphasize eating fewer carbohydrates and more protein and fat.
But the trend is probably peaking, according to Suzannah Eygabroat, Productscan Online's director of information services.
"It is our position that this is a diet trend that is specifically related to these diets and will follow the trends of other diets: They come and they go," Eygabroat said.
But what exactly is "low-carb?"
For now, it's whatever manufacturers or diet-book authors say it is, said Cecilia Hennig, diabetes educator and licensed dietitian at St. Vincent's Medical Center.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has never defined the term as it has "low-sodium," "low-cholesterol" or "low-fat," Hennig said.
A low-fat food, for example, must contain 3 grams of fat or less. A low-calorie food must offer no more than 40 calories per serving. But a food billing itself as "low-carb" may have even more carbohydrates than competing brands.
The new foods are most noticeable in those carbohydrate strongholds -- the bread and ice cream aisles.
Atkins Endulge chocolate fudge swirl ice cream bars, for instance, contain 12 grams of carbs. Publix brand no-sugar-added fudge bars contain 11. And Publix's bars contain only 10 calories from fat, compared to Atkins' 140.
As an added bonus, Publix's gives you twice as many bars for less than half the price of Atkins' bars.
The nutrition label on the back of a food package must list the product's total carbohydrates. But manufacturers are disguising carbs by subtracting certain types -- such as carbs from fiber or sugar alcohols -- from the total count, according to an article published this month in a health newsletter produced by University of California-Berkeley.
Read the label
The front of the package often touts this reduced number as the "effective carbs" or "net impact carbs."
Those terms haven't been defined either, Hennig said.
Atkins' Quick Quisine version of macaroni and cheese, found in the small Low Carb Corner at a Mandarin Harris Teeter, contains 17 grams of total carbs and 340 calories when prepared with half-and-half, as directed.
But its packaging directs the consumer to count only 8 of the 17 grams. It says the other 9 grams come from dietary fiber, "which has a minimal impact on blood sugar."
It's reasonable to deduct the fiber carbs because those are not absorbed by the body, Hennig said. But a reduction of sugars or sugar alcohols is not based on science.
And the Atkins mac and cheese also costs $5.59, several times the cost of regular mac and cheese.
Some manufacturers are hedging their bets and unveiling products that might appeal to both the carb-counters and the calorie-watchers.
Klondike CarbSmart fudge bar contains 9 total carbs and 60 calories.
The new Sara Lee Delightful White Bakery Bread contains 9 grams of carbs and no calories from fat per slice.
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