(Nov. 8) In a world of mixed messages where consumers are obsessed with good looks yet obesity is prevalent, the low-carb diet has captured the hearts and weight loss hopes of many Americans.

The skinny is that diets touting their “do not eat” lists of restricted items have left consumers scratching their heads and wondering: “What is really good for my health?”

To top it off, the South Beach Diet declares some foods have “bad carbs” while others have “good carbs.” The Atkins diet promotes its own version of the food pyramid with proteins at the bottom, followed by fruits and vegetables.

According to research conducted by Opinion Dynamics Corp., Cambridge, Mass., low-carb dieting has been a steady trend and is not losing steam. In August, the company found that about 11% of adults are following a diet that restricts carb intake. This percentage is consistent with surveys the company took in December.

Dr. Stewart Targer, medical director for Atkins Nutritionals Inc., Ronkonkoma, N.Y., sees low-carb as long term. “As more people see its impact,” he states, “its following will continue to grow.” Another study by the Valen Group, Cincinnati, stated that 59 million U.S. adults follow some kind of low-carb program.

Last year alone, Atkins Nutritionals had sales exceeding $100 million, according to chief marketing officer Matthew Wiant.

The diet has become so popular that there even are magazines, like Low Carb Living, dedicated to the cause.

However, the market research firm NPD Group Inc., Port Washington, N.Y., found that out of 11,000 people surveyed, virtually none was cutting carbs to the degree that low-carb diets recommend. In one report from the company, called “Carbohydrate Consumption Patterns,” Harry Balzer states that “Low-carb diets are just a fad, just like the low-fat craze of the late ’80s and ’90s. The question is low long will it last.”

Whether low-carb is here to stay or not, don’t let it hurt your sales. Make the most of it, and promote produce items, including blueberries, raspberries, pears, avocados, salad greens, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus and spinach, that fit a low-carb lifestyle.

SALES IMPACT ON PRODUCE

One of the most obvious commodities that has been affected by low-carb diets is the potato, which has experienced a decline in consumption across all formats (fresh, dehydrated and frozen).

According to the Idaho Potato Commission, Boise, the fresh potato industry has experienced a sales decline of 1% to 3% in the past nine months even as prices have dropped, and that reduction is attributed directly to consumers attempting to eat fewer carbs.

John Pope, vice president of sales for MountainKing Potatoes, Houston, says the diet has led merchandisers to allocate less advertising space to key items like potatoes.

Cub Foods, Stillwater, Minn., with 65 corporate and franchised stores, has seen the sales of potatoes and carrots fall, says Mike Witt, director of produce and floral. He says that both commodities have been down every period this year when compared to last year.

The low-carb diet also has affected the bottom line for orange juice sales as per capita consumption dropped 17% in the past five years. According to “The South Beach Diet” by Dr. Arthur Agaston, all fruit juices are discouraged because they bring with them high levels of fructose, which can be the undoing of any effort to lose weight.

Although sales of potatoes, orange juice and other carb no-nos like carrots and grapefruit are down, overall produce sales have increased 4.1%, according to an ACNielsen report. In fact, some produce items have seen increases in sales since the low-carb diet became popular.

“Some other categories, like strawberries and salads, have seen gains,” Witt says, “and (the low-carb diet) has had a positive effect.”

According to an article in the spring issue of ACNielsen’s Consumer Insight magazine, Jeff Gregori, director of consumer information retail services, says that sales of Atkins-friendly fruits in 2003 “posted double-digit growth of 14%, a pace almost five times that of the combined fruit market.” Sales of carb-friendly vegetables increased by 6%, compared to the “total vegetable performance of just 3%.”

Steve Lutz, executive vice president of The Perishables Group, West Dundee, Ill., sees the tide turning and believes low-carb sales have peaked. He foresees the low-carb trend of today being replaced by another trend five years from now. “At the end of the day,” Lutz says, “diets don’t work.”

However, Lutz has been surprised by the growth in celery sales, which he says is a result of recent diet trends. Up by a whopping 9%, he states it’s the “biggest jump celery has ever made.”

Richard Lukeman, owner of two IGA Supermarkets in New York, says it’s the high prices that are affecting produce sales — which are down several thousand for the stores — not the diet trends. And even though the stores’ meat department sales are the same compared to last year, meat prices also have increased 20% to 40% and tonnage is down significantly, he says.

RETAILERS FIGHT BACK

There are those who think the low-carb trend will disappear, while others are convinced that it is here to stay. While the jury is still out, there are many ways retailers have kept their customers informed and satisfied while still increasing sales in the produce department.

In response to customer needs, Cub Foods added “Carb Counters” as a feature to its produce departments. Witt says the program, which was introduced in February, uses signs and shelf tags that highlight items low in carbs. Store circulars also carry the “Carb Counters” logo for specific products. Witt believes it all “comes as a whole issue of health” and he focuses his efforts on ensuring his staff understand and be able to identify low-carb items to the consumer.

Farm Fresh, a chain of 35 stores in Virginia Beach, Va., identifies items for low-carb dieters on its salad bar with signs that list the number of carbs the item contains. Chris Van Parys, vice president of perishable operations, says the chain chose to list the number of carbs rather than create a generic low-carb sign because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t released any regulations about what is considered low in carbs and what is not.

SUPPLIERS JOIN THE BATTLE

Apio Inc., Guadalupe, Calif., launched an “Eat Smart” brand of prepacked vegetables in August. The 12-ounce bags of broccoli florets and broccoli-cauliflower mix feature a carb-conscious burst on the front of each bag which reads, “Smart Choice for Low Carb Diets.”

Potandon Produce LLC, Idaho Falls, Idaho, is packing its potato bags with a Weight Watchers tag as part of “The Truth About Carbohydrates” partnership formed in January by the U.S. Potato Board and Weight Watchers. The program included a video news release, brochures, Weight Watchers’ “Pick of the Season” logo on bags and brochures at the point of sale. In addition, Weight Watchers’ meetings across the country (more than 1 million enrolled) discussed the nutritional value of potatoes.

Tim O’Connor, chief executive officer of the Denver-based board, says sales at stores that used nutritional marketing materials were 10.5% higher than those that did not.

The board is offering a free “Healthy Potato” sales booster kit that includes information on eye-catching point-of-sale materials, circulars, consumer research findings and recipe ideas on their Web site, www.uspotatoes.com.

According to a June article from the Associated Press, Dutch company HZPC Holland BV is revamping the potato in order to make it low-carb. The potato, dubbed the “Spud-U-Lite,” reportedly contains one-third of the calories than most other potatoes and is proportionately lower in carbs.

MountainKing has implemented a consumer education program called “Six-Week Low-in-Calories — High-in-Flavor.” The program includes in-store banners, diet information on potato bags and advertisements.

The Idaho Potato Commission created an advertising message and has retained Denise Austin, nationally known health and fitness expert, to show the true nutritional value of potatoes. Austin promotes a well-balanced diet and claims that those people not eating complex carbs actually can hurt wellness since these carbs are needed for energy to adequately exercise. The commission provides signs and support to the retail and foodservice industries.

While potatoes may not be as appealing to the low-carb dieter, cauliflower is getting more visibility. Those on low-carb diets have been using the vegetable as a carb replacement making faux mashed potatoes or shredding them as a substitute for noodles or rice. The vegetable is a good source of vitamins B, C and B6 and folate.

Tanimura & Antle Inc., Salinas, Calif., recently introduced wrapped heads of cauliflower touting low-carb recipes that can be made with the vegetables.

The Florida Depart-ment of Citrus is focusing its $1.8 million marketing campaign on the wholesomeness of orange and grapefruit juice.

“There is a strong need to promote the fact that fruits and vegetables are naturally low in carbs,” says Donna Dolan, corporate dietitian for Hy-Vee Inc., West Des Moines, Iowa. For example, Dolan suggests using POS nutrition information such as, “Colorado Peaches: Perfect for a low-carb lifestyle. Peaches contain just 40 calories and 8 grams of absorbable carbohydrates.”

WHAT’S NEXT

Today’s definition of what is low-carb and what is not is up in the air. The Food and Drug Administration does not evaluate or regulate low-carb claims. “Consumers have been bombarded with inconclusive and contradictory information about carbohydrates and their impact on their health,” says Alison Kretser, director of nutrition and scientific policy for The Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington, D.C.

It is not certain whether government standards will ever be imposed on low-carb products, but according to an Aug. 2 speech by Lester Crawford, acting commissioner of the FDA, the agency plans to publish a proposed rule regarding claims on carb content in food this fall.