Demand for low-carb items is thinning out

Monday, December 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:43 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Low-carb diets took the nation by storm last year. Local grocers scrambled to meet demand even as Krispy Kreme Doughnuts — a mass producer of high-carb foods — was forced to adjust earnings projections downward and to close stores and kiosks in Canada.

The holiday season and the rule of “what goes up must come down,” however, have contributed to a decline in demand for low-carb foods, as people are being lured back to the carb-laden world of bread and doughnuts.

Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm, said 3.5 percent of adults are on some kind of low-carb diet today, compared with a peak of 9 percent in January.

The growth in sales of low-carb products is declining as well, according to ACNielsen LabelTrends. ACNielsen in the third quarter of 2004 reported a 6 percent growth in sales of low-carb products, compared to a 105.5 percent gain in the first quarter of this year, when the anti-carb diet regime advanced by Dr. Robert Atkins was hitting its peak.

“We had a whole Atkins line of products, everything from pancake batter to chocolate syrup,” said Nate Hightower, assistant manager at Patricia’s Foods. The east-side grocer has since scaled back on its low-carb options.

The same is true at Hy-Vee Food Store.

“We used to have a full section (for low-carb foods), but we cut it down,” Hy-Vee manager Brad Kleinschmit said. “It was not warranting the space we provided.”

Kleinschmit said Hy-Vee once had a 20-foot section of the store dedicated to low-carb items but now spreads them throughout the store and marks them with orange cards to indicate they’re low-carb.

“The low-carb thing is slowing down,” said Hy-Vee bakery manager Dennis Hixson. People “are going back to regular bread and getting away from the low-carb stuff.”

Hixson said sales began to taper off around October. He and Kleinschmit attribute part of the trend to the holiday season. Hy-Vee’s bakery still carries an Atkins bread line, but the products have been marked down.

Hightower said lack of demand prompted Patricia’s to discontinue its Atkins low-carb bread line about a month ago.

“People weren’t buying it, and it would go bad so quickly,” Hightower said. “We tried putting it in the freezer, but eventually we just discontinued it.”

Patricia’s still carries Sara Lee brand low-carb bread, but Hightower said those sales are slowing down as well.

Lori Willis, director of communications for Schnucks in St. Louis, said the low-carb trend is not slowing down so much as it is stabilizing. She said there is still a solid core of customers who continue to buy low-carb products.

“We’ve seen this happen with other trends, such as the low-fat trend,” Willis said. “We anticipated it would peak at some point and then level off.”

Willis said each of Schnucks’ 120 stores is monitoring its shelves to see “where their customers’ loyalties lie.” For now, the Schnucks store in Columbia will continue to carry a large selection of low-carb products.

Balzer said the low-carb diet boom can be attributed to the fact that Americans just enjoy trying new diets.

“We are always trying new things,” Balzer said. “But for the most part, we don’t like to change.”

Helen Burnham of Weight Watchers in Columbia said the low-carb trend might be slowing because the diet is difficult to sustain.

“To give up an entire food group is hard for people,” Burnham said. “(People) do not want to permanently give up bread or hamburger buns or cereal.”

Burnham said a lot of people have rejoined Weight Watchers after struggling with a low-carb diet. “They say, ‘I tried doing that, but it was too hard for me,’ ” Burnham said. “You know, the key (to a diet) is to find something that you can keep doing.”

In any case, all bets are off for many people during the holidays.

“As far as (diets), during this time of year it does slow down,” said Geri Richardson, owner of Geri’s Person to Person weight-loss clinic in Columbia. “People are pretty well focused on family and shopping, family dinners and Christmas dinners.”

Richardson said she expects people to pick up their diets again after the first of the year. Kleinschmit said the low-carb craze might bounce back.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if after Jan. 1 it picks back up again, because of New Year’s resolutions … and things like that,” Kleinschmit said.

Balzer, of the NDP Group, said one of every three women and one of every five men are on some sort of diet.

“It’s been that way for 25 years,” Balzer said. “The most popular diet continues to be ‘my own’ diet, the one you make up yourself.”

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