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Low-carb lowdown

All those labels can be misleading. Nutritionists caution: Calories count too.

August 02, 2004|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

Las Vegas — When the low-carb diet craze ignited faster and stronger than anything the food industry had ever seen, flat-bread maker Damascus Bakeries knew it had to do something or watch its sales, well, flatten.

In fact, the owner of the nearly 75-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., commercial bakery, David Mafoud, had his own motivations for finding a solution: He also had been cutting back on carbs in a successful effort that helped him shed 20 pounds from his 6-foot-5 frame. So his bakers began tinkering with their traditional recipes.

They cut out the flour, which contains most of the carbohydrates, and substituted dense proteins extracted from grains such as flax, wheat and soy. And they bulked up the flat bread with oat fiber to increase its moisture and fiber content.

"We were making a muscle-brew," Mafoud says, referring to the dense mixture of protein isolates and fiber that substituted for the flour.

The result? Sandwich roll-ups with reduced amounts of carbohydrates, 10 grams of protein and about quadruple the amount of fiber found in a few prunes. The calorie count is 110, about the same as the bakery's regular roll-ups.

And there's the rub with many of the hundreds of "low-carb" processed products hitting the supermarkets these days: most contain no caloric advantage. Hence, unless consumers are following highly restricted carbohydrate diets such as the Atkins program, the processed products may not help them lose weight. Instead, the new products may persuade some dieters to indulge in hefty servings of low-carb items, without giving much thought to calories, nutritionists say.

As a result, some diet experts think the low-carb craze has the potential to be just as confusing -- and potentially hazardous -- to consumers as yesteryear's low-fat craze, when many people got the idea that they could indulge without weight gain in unlimited quantities of pasta and pretzels because they were low in fat. There were some positive sides to that movement, however: Some low-fat products actually offered significant caloric reductions -- such as skim milk and reduced-fat cheeses and creams -- and thus were beneficial to dieters.

Now, consumers are getting the message that they can lose weight and still eat plenty of bread, pastry, ice cream and candy, as long as it's low carb, says Joanne Slavin, a nutritionist and a professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Food Science and Nutrition.

The reason that the Atkins high protein and fat diet has worked for some people is because it banished processed foods, she says. "Now, people are eating all this junk labeled "low net carbs," and they're taking in just as many calories and they're not going to lose weight."

The popularity of low-carb diets has inspired nearly every processed food maker these days to concoct low-carb versions to respond to consumer demand. Even pet food now comes in a low-carb formulation.

At the Institute of Food Technologists trade show in Las Vegas earlier this month, ingredient makers were showcasing substitute ingredients for the now reviled white flour and sugar that included dense proteins made from whey, soy, hemp, flax and oats along with gums, cellulose and other bulking agents. The companies were doling out samples of foods their ingredients could be used in, including soy soft-serve ice cream substitutes, soy pizza crusts and tortillas created from whey proteins.

"It's like a fire out of control," Slavin says. "Every diet program, every food manufacturer, all the big Wal-Marts of the world have said we only want products with low net carbs."

Ironically, the Atkins and South Beach diets that fueled the low-carb frenzy advocate consumption of whole foods such as meats, fish, cheeses, poultry, eggs and vegetables. The programs urge dieters to steer clear of most processed foods. Even Atkins Nutritionals, which has brought forth a line of processed low-carb candy bars, bagels and pancake and waffle mixes, advises dieters to consider the processed item as an occasional treat -- eating at most, two a day -- rather than making them the mainstay of their diets.

"You can't give people the notion that as long as they're just eating low carbs, they're eating healthy," says Colette Heimowitz, Atkins Nutritionals vice president of education.

As with most nutritionists, Heimowitz agrees that consumers can lose weight on any number of low-calorie, balanced diets, in which calories (from any food group) ingested add to less than the amount of energy expended daily.

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