By Alan J. Wax
Staff Writer/NEWSDAY

October 19, 2003

The Fairway supermarket in Plainview is bustling with shoppers on a recent Sunday afternoon. Smack in the middle of the sprawling store are displays of diet foods bulging with low-carbohydrate products of the most unlikely kinds: Bagels, bread mixes, cake mixes, candies, crackers, pancake syrups, salad dressings, cereals -- even chips and beer -- all seemingly forbidden foods for the growing legion of low-carb dieters.

In fact, by one count, there are now more than 800 products that mimic the very foods that dieters are supposed to avoid. Low-carb dieters, who until now have been content to stuff their gullets with steak and bacon and eggs, now can have their cake and avoid it, too.

This is good news for David Taylor, 42, of Bethpage, who has been following the low-carbohydrate, high-protein Atkins diet for almost seven months.

Taylor, a maitre d' at Peppercorns restaurant in Hicksville, said he's lost 50 pounds on the regimen, which calls for loading up on all the proteins you want and avoiding carbohydrates such as wheat and sugar.

"It's very hard to do without your bread and macaroni," he noted.

But since George Weston Bakeries Inc., which owns the Arnold bread brand (as well as Entenmann's), launched a low-carb bread, he's been buying a loaf a week -- at about $3 each, a half-dollar more than regular bread.

He also frequently buys low-carb chocolate syrup to make egg creams, and muffin mixes and brownie mixes sold under the Atkins Quick Cuisine brand. "The brownies were very good. I made them for a party."

Brownies? Pasta? Pancake syrup? That's hardly what comes to mind when you think of dieting and low carbohydrates.

But with an estimated 35 million people now embracing some form of low-carb diet, food companies are coming out with a host of new products ranging from ketchup to chocolate ice cream. Supermarkets are setting aside entire aisles to sell them, and some specialty stores sell nothing else. Restaurants -- even fast-food outlets -- are coming out with low-carb menus.

To be sure, there's plenty of controversy over whether the low-carb diet is healthy, and reason to doubt anyone will lose weight if they scarf down an entire box of low-carb blueberry muffins. But one thing is certain: Given the hefty prices for these new products, dieters' wallets are going to be a lot thinner. According to food industry market research, consumers are shelling out $3.5 billion a year on packaged low-carb foods, up 400 percent from a year ago.

And the mania, along with its sometimes breathless marketing, has caught the wary eye of regulators at the Food and Drug Administration, who wonder whether the low-carb claims on the labels match reality.

Oft-maligned, high-protein, low-carb dieting has been around since 1972, when "Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution" by Dr. Robert Atkins was first published.

While many were skeptical, the theory has become increasingly popular since the 1992 publication of a second Atkins book and a similar best-selling diet book, "The South Beach Diet" by Dr. Arthur Agatston. Both books also have been bolstered by new scientific research supporting the concept.

But until recently, low-carb dieters seeking to chow down on something more than meat and cream had few packaged foods from which to choose, other than the sometimes dubious-tasting protein shakes and nutrition bars made by small companies and sold in health food stores or fitness clubs.

Three years ago, Atkins, who died in April, launched his own food business, Ronkonkoma-based Atkins Nutritionals.

Today, it sells more than 50 products and 100 nutritional supplements through more than 30,000 stores nationwide. Dozens of small entrepreneurs and big food companies have since joined in.

One Atkins adherent, Long Beach homemaker Julie Gross, 49, began buying Atkins Advantage protein bars when she started the regimen seven months ago. "They tasted to me like Snickers," she said. "It was just delicious."

Since then, she's been scouting stores in her area for other low-carb foods. "I think a lot of these products, especially the ones with [the artificial sweetener] sucralose, if you use them sensibly, they do help to feel that you're not missing anything," said Gross as she unpacked a supply of Atkins' vanilla ice cream.

There's no shortage of places for her to shop. Already, there are chains of specialty stores selling only low-carb foods, such as Stay Slim, which has five stores in Nassau, Queens and the Bronx, along with online retailers such as Low Carb Connoisseur. Fancy eateries in Manhattan, a deli in Farmingdale, a pizza-and-pasta joint in Mount Sinai and Blimpie's subs, the fast-food chain, are adding low-carb menu items.

The phenomenon has impressed those on the front line of the food industry. "I've been in the health food business 25 years and I've never seen anything that this was this powerful of a movement," said Fairway's natural foods manager, Paul Weiner. "Normally, we see these fads in the industry every other year, but I've got a feeling this is something that is going to be sustained."

The King Kullen supermarket chain has been clearing shelves for new products aimed at carb-counters. "This is going to be a really exploding category," said Joseph Brown, senior vice president of sales and merchandising. "It's attracting a lot of different people, not just people who are looking from a diet standpoint or a weight-loss standpoint." And those shelves are being filled by some of the biggest brand names, among them Anheuser-Busch, Heinz, Breyers ice cream, Russell Stover and health foods giant Hain Celestial Group of Melville.

"As long as the trend is out there, everyone's going to capitalize on it," said Irwin Simon, president of Hain, which recently launched a line of low-carb foods.

Driven by the public's growing appetite, the list of low-carb products is getting fatter. New or soon-to-be-introduced products include Heinz One Carb Ketchup, Breyers CarbSmart ice cream, Russell Stover chocolate candies and Anheuser-Busch's Michelob Ultra beer. Ultra, for one, has been an enormous success. Sold nationally for the past year, it has become the 12th best-selling brew in the country.

Small-business owners are cashing in, too, including Andre Heimann, of Andre's Hungarian Strudels & Pastries, a Forest Hills bake shop. Heimann started a new business in the bakery's basement, making flatbreads distributed nationally under the CarboSave brand. "The whole country is overweight and looking to eat healthier," Heimann said.

If nothing else, some shoppers get more exercise walking the aisles.

"It takes even longer to shop, even for a small can of beans," said Natalie Cohen, a 34-year-old Holtsville homemaker and part-time cosmetics marketer who is on the Atkins diet. Her shopping expeditions aren't as simple as they used to be, she said, because she stops to reads package labels for their sugar content. "My whole mindset is to avoid excess sugar."

Carbs are also on the mind of diners. "When you go out to eat, you have to make choices," said Vince Greco, 61, of Melville, a sales manager for a plastics firm who has been on -- and off -- the Atkins diet for 30 years.

"When you go on the diet, you notice the sugar in everything," said Greco, who stops frequently for lunch at Suburban Eats, an upscale deli on Route 110 in Melville that offers daily low-carb specials and even low-carb pizza and cheesecake. The strip center eatery sells as many as 70 low-carb meals each workday, said co-owner Tim Caras.

At Over Pasta at Pizza Picasso, a restaurant in Mount Sinai, owner Bonnie Askinasi is offering spaghetti squash with sauce as an alternative to pasta. "It's been such a home run," said Askinasi, who's been on the South Beach Diet for two months. The South Beach Diet teaches participants to rely on the right carbs and the right fats to lose weight.

Low-carb items also are on the menu at Ola and Guastavino's, both in Manhattan, and at Carlton on the Park in East Meadow, and at 22 Blimpie's sandwich shops across Long Island. And experts expect other fast-food operators -- who have been battling charges that their meals promote obesity -- to follow suit.

McDonald's hired nationally known nutritionist Pamela Smith and plans to publish guides showing consumers how they can eat items on the chain's menu and remain true to their diets.

But some nutrition experts wonder whether low-carb diets are the answer, given the indulgent nature of the new products. Julie Walsh, a Manhattan-based nutritionist and spokeswoman for the American Dietary Association, said that while the proliferation of low-carb products makes it easier for Atkins and other diet adherents to follow their diets, people won't necessarily lose weight unless they cut their overall caloric intake.

"It's like the whole SnackWell's phenomenon," said Walsh, referring to the explosion of low-fat sweets spurred by the Nabisco cookie line launched more than a decade ago.

To be sure, none of the low-fat food makers have abandoned their efforts, nor is there any evidence that they're going to switch gears soon.

"We thought that by reducing dietary fats, everyone would lose weight . . . Everything went low fat. We still didn't lose weight. There's a real risk people will do the same thing, thinking low-carb foods are a panacea."

The growing popularity of low-carb foods also has caught the eye of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Now, there are no labeling rules for carbohydrates as there are for low-calorie and low-fat claims. Indeed, some consumers are already concerned.

"I know there's a lot of deceit going on out there," said Sue Hirner, 47, of Stony Brook, an elementary schoolteacher who has lost 12 pounds since August on the South Beach Diet.

"We are looking into the issue," said FDA spokeswoman Kimberly Rollins.

Price is also an issue for some consumers. Low-carb products typically carry higher prices than regular groceries, often more than double the prices of regular foods. In part, manufacturers said, that's because they use more costly ingredients.

"They're pricey," said Jack Philips, 60, of Bay Shore, a retired schoolteacher who has followed the Atkins plan for about a year, but has shunned the specialty products in favor of more meat, cheese, eggs and vegetables. "I checked them out, but never partook of them."