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Is the low-carb backlash beginning?

Some foodmakers say moderate will replace extreme in diets

Some foodmakers say moderate will replace extreme in diets

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SCOTTSDALE, Arizona (Reuters) -- U.S. foodmakers are scrambling to satisfy consumer clamorings for low-carbohydrate products but also see a move toward more balanced eating that could spell doom for the strictest low-carb diets, like Atkins.

At an industry conference last week in Scottsdale, Arizona, companies including Kellogg Co. and Hershey Foods Corp. touted products such as low-carb cereals and chocolate bars catering to the millions of Americans following diets that eschew carbohydrates like bread, sugar and pasta in favor of high-protein foods and those made with sugar alternatives.

But even as they push these new products, companies which have been hurt by the backlash against carbohydrates expect consumers will soon back off the more extreme low-carb diets due to growing concerns about their intake of artery-clogging fat and cholesterol.

Recent studies have put the number of Americans following low-carb diets at anywhere from 10 million to 24 million.

"Everything in moderation is ultimately where all these things lead to," said Douglas Conant, chief executive of Campbell Soup Co. "These diets become fad-like and take on lives of their own ... and typically they are not sustainable."

The Atkins diet, which tells followers they may eat liberal amounts of bacon, eggs, cream and other high-fat products, is widely considered to be the most extreme low-carb diet.

Controversy surrounding the Atkins diet intensified after reports alleging that the diet's creator Dr. Robert Atkins had a heart condition and was overweight at the time of death.

But Dr. Stuart Trager, chairman of the Atkins Physicians' Council, said Atkins' heart condition was not related to his diet. In addition, the doctor weighed 195 pounds only a week before his death, Trager said, calling the suggestion that Atkins was obese a "misrepresentation."

Still, food executives said the negative reports have started to raise some concerns.

"You are beginning to see a bit of the wheels coming off the cart right now already on this whole Atkins diet," Irwin Simon, chief executive of organic foods maker Hain Celestial Group Inc., said in an interview. "No carbs, high fat -- there are going to be some big challenges."

Simon added that he follows his own low-carb -- but also low-fat -- diet, staying away from red meat as well as bread and pasta.

Reports raise eyebrows

The negative reports about Atkins, which prompted a flurry of headlines across the globe labeling him "Dr. Fatkins," come on top of numerous public attacks by low-fat diet gurus such as Dr. Dean Ornish and nutrition advocacy groups.

Late last year, the vegetarian group Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine created buzz by saying the Atkins diet could lead to heart disease and may have contributed to the death of one teen-age dieter.

"You're beginning to see some publications and some articles about taking these diets to an extreme," Kellogg Chairman and CEO Carlos Gutierrez told reporters at the conference. "All these small events, whether it's somebody on the news or whether it's a magazine article, they chip away at the diet."

Kellogg is addressing concerns about the strictest low-carb diets in a new television commercial for its Morningstar Farms vegetarian burgers and patties, which the company says are naturally low in carbs. In the commercial, a voice questions whether low-carb diets are being taken too far, while a woman is overheard ordering veal chops, ribs, buffalo wings and a burger without the bun.

"It addresses that there is a lot of confusion out there," Gutierrez said of the ad. "What we're trying to say is that we know the whole thing seems a bit ridiculous. Here's something you can try."

Cereal-maker Kellogg is not the only company that is hoping to inject a dose of moderation into the low-carb craze.

Hershey CEO Richard Lenny, for one, said the candy company has teamed up with Dr. Barry Sears, an advocate of the popular Zone diet, to make a line of nutrition bars that Lenny said follow the principles of balanced nutrition.

"As most fads go, something converges back to the center, which is one of the reasons we have this alliance," Lenny said in an interview.

Another big food company, ketchup maker H.J. Heinz Co. , stressed that its new "Truth About Carbs" line of Smart Ones frozen entrees, which are being co-marketed with Weight Watchers International Inc., are aimed at dieters who are interested in balanced eating.

"It hits people who are interested in low carb, it hits people who are interested in caloric intake, and it hits people who just want to feel better about themselves," said Heinz CEO William Johnson.

"We present a balanced approach to this instead of a one-sided, overly aggressive approach to try to deal with a trend that may or may not last and may or may not change over time."

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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