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Bakers Losing Bread to Low-Carb Diet Trend

Overall sales are flat or down. Industry officials plan summit to persuade people that the maligned food is part of a healthy lifestyle.

November 16, 2003|David Sharp | Associated Press Writer

PORTLAND, Maine — A sign in Stephen Lanzalotta's bakery reads, "Senza il pane tutto diventa orfano." In Italian, that means, "Without bread everyone's an orphan."

But fewer customers are buying his European-style breads and pastries these days; thanks to the Atkins diet, many regulars are cutting back on carbohydrates. Lanzalotta says the low-carb diet has contributed to an estimated 40% drop in business at his shop, Sophia's.

Some customers have even stopped by to apologize. "They'll say, 'I'm sorry. I haven't been in for six months because I'm on the Atkins diet,' " he said.

Some bakers around the country are seeing a similar drop in business. With millions of people trying the diet created by the late Dr. Robert Atkins, overall bread sales are flat or down slightly, while bread-bashing seems to be at an all-time high.

The National Bread Leadership Council, which says 40% of Americans are eating less bread than a year ago, has scheduled a summit this week in Rhode Island focusing in part on low-carb diets and how to educate the public that breaking bread is still part of a healthy lifestyle.

"It's too bad that we just can't eat all foods in moderation. But, no, we have to do something dramatic all the time," said Judi Adams, president of the Wheat Foods Council and a registered dietician. "We have to look for this magic bullet."

Estimates of the number of Americans on low-carb diets vary widely, from 5 million to 50 million.

Their boycott of bread has exacerbated a sluggish sales trend that was in place before low-carb diets became popular, said John McMillin, a food industry analyst with Prudential Equity Group Inc. in New York.

When Lanzalotta opened his bakery, bread accounted for 75% of sales. Now it accounts for 15%. He boosted his dessert offerings and began offering sandwiches to try to make up the difference. He also sells artwork, including his own paintings.

At Standard Baking, co-owner Alison Pray said sales are nearly flat after previously growing 10% to 15% a year. She sees plenty of couples stopping by, but often only one partner is eating. The other is cutting carbs.

She's a bit incredulous when customers ask if she produces anything consistent with the Atkins diet: "This one person asked me, 'Can you make a low-carbohydrate bread?' I said, 'I wouldn't know how to do it.' "

Others are adapting. At Anthony's Italian Kitchen, owner Tony Barassa said his customers are ordering Syrian wraps without the wrap and panini sandwiches without the panini. They're also ordering meatballs without the spaghetti.

On Atkins, people can eat cheese, eggs and meat as long as they limit carbohydrates and avoid refined carbs like white flour. White bread, pasta, potatoes and other carbo-loaded foods are blacklisted. The diet was once scorned by the medical establishment, but recent studies show people lose weight without compromising their health.

The Wheat Food Council's Adams, based in Colorado, believes that low-carb diets are just another fad. And she wonders if they're really helping.

She noted that the nation's obesity rate has continued to grow as flour consumption has declined. Wheat flour consumption has dropped by about 10 pounds a year per person since 1997, she said, calling Americans' tendency to eat too much of everything the real problem. "We eat 300 more calories a day than we did in 1985. We super-size everything. We eat constantly."

Big Sky Baking Co. in Portland appears to have avoided the worst of the low-carb fallout because its whole wheat bread is the kind recommended for carb-cutters who can't resist a slice every now and again.

Owner Martha Elkus recognizes that times are changing. "The food pyramid has been turned upside down," she said.

Bread bakers aren't the only ones hurting. The pasta industry, tortilla industry, bagel makers and beer brewers have taken their lumps for having too many carbohydrates.

The Tortilla Industry Assn. held a seminar titled "An Industry in Crisis: The High-Protein, Low-Carb Diet and Its Effects on the Tortilla Industry." The National Pasta Assn. has a "Diet Matters" section on its Web page that focuses on low-carb diets.

Joshua Sosland, executive editor of Milling and Baking News in St. Louis, said it's difficult for consumers to find good information amid all the hype that overshadows the science behind diets. Often overlooked is the fact bread and grains remain an important part of the federal government's diet guidelines.

"Here we have about the most healthy thing in the diet and it's being treated like it's poison," Sosland said.

Bakers are changing their products as they seek to get out the message that bread remains part of a healthy lifestyle.

Flowers Foods' low-carb bread, "Nature's Own Wheat 'n Fiber," has proven to be its most successful new product to date, said Mary Krier, spokeswoman in Thomasville, Ga.

George Weston Bakeries Inc. has launched "Carb Counting" bread under its Arnold label that carries the Atkins seal. Maine-based Lepage Bakeries has introduced Country Kitchen "Lower Carb" wheat bread.

Panera Bread, a chain that offers soups, salads and sandwiches in addition to bread, is making changes to meet the tastes of its customers. It is testing three whole-grain breads with fewer grams of carbohydrates per slice. "Our view of it is not to resist [the low-carb trend] but to recognize it as a real niche," CEO Ron Shaich said.

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