CARB-RICH CATEGORIES REGROUP AFTER SALES DROPS

Low-carb might be the biggest phenomenon to hit supermarkets since sliced bread. The one painful irony, however, is that the trend has been devastating to sliced bread -- and rice, pasta and potatoes, to name but a few.Hard-hit categories aren't sitting around waiting for the market to change. Associations like the USA Rice Federation, Houston, and the National Bread Leadership Council, Atlanta, are

Low-carb might be the biggest phenomenon to hit supermarkets since sliced bread. The one painful irony, however, is that the trend has been devastating to sliced bread -- and rice, pasta and potatoes, to name but a few.

Hard-hit categories aren't sitting around waiting for the market to change. Associations like the USA Rice Federation, Houston, and the National Bread Leadership Council, Atlanta, are busy organizing a concerted response to salvage the reputation of their products.

To that end, the council held the first-ever National Bread Summit late last year, gathering together experts on baking and nutrition for a day of discussion. In addition, the USA Rice Federation is embarking on a national marketing campaign that touts the properties of rice and suggests the grain can fit into any and all diet regimens.

"We understand that no one particular diet works for everybody. The unique thing about rice is that it fits into all diets -- brown fits into the later stages of both Atkins and South Beach," Kim Park, senior director of domestic promotion at the rice group, told SN.

Once the campaign gets under way, it will encompass numerous promotional activities like advertising, media spokesman tours and a push to promote brown rice in supermarket delis. The federation will also enlist the support of dieticians and culinary professionals to help educate consumers on the benefits of including rice in their diets. Also, new to the federation's annual consumer recipe contest this year will be a whole-grain category.

"It's a ride-with-the-tide kind of thing. We know that we're not going to be able to stop the popularity of the diets right now," Park said.

However, a recent consumer study conducted by the federation gives her and her fellow rice supporters hope. Of the more than 2,500 people surveyed, most said they considered rice best for weight-conscious diets compared with potatoes and pasta.

Nevertheless, pasta purveyors will not be discounted. In fact, an international conference was held last month in Rome in which scientists gathered with members of the food retailing industry to herald the nutritional attributes of pasta.

"We pointed to the glyceric index of pasta. We point out that in the Mediterranean diet, if you use pasta the right way with olive oil and vegetables and lean proteins, it is a great way to facilitate healthy eating. It's a great carrier for other healthier ingredients," said Tim Webster, chairman of Washington-based National Pasta Association and president and chief executive officer of the American Italian Pasta Co., Kansas City, Mo.

Webster told SN his company has taken a three-pronged approach to meeting the challenges that low-carb dieting presents. For those consumers who are not worried about their carbs, his company offers the Web site www.makesameal.com, which contains more than 5,000 different pasta recipes. For the people in the "active induction phase" of the Atkins plan, the company is manufacturing a series of pasta products and side dishes with pasta as the main ingredient, which are being sold under the Atkins Quick Cuisine label.

For consumers who are simply interested in reducing the density of carbohydrates in their diets, the company has created pasta items that Webster said taste as good as regular pasta, but contain less than half the carbs, five times the fiber, and two-and-a-half times the protein -- with no more calories. They are sold under various labels depending on market region, including Mueller's, R&F and Golden Grain.

"I think [low-carb] is here to stay. If we can make a great-tasting pasta with substantially reduced levels of carbs, then we might have a big winner," Webster said.

John Pope, spokesman for Houston-based Mountain King Potatoes, is hopeful a new marketing campaign positioning potatoes as "nature's natural diet food" will reverse a national sales slide.

Initial data is encouraging. After printing a bright-green band with a "diet food" message across bags of potatoes, sales in certain markets increased 20% in five-pound bags and 27% in 10-pound bags. Taking into account that category sales were off 8% to 16% in dollars, those increases represent a substantial net gain. The new packaging is being used by five of the nation's top 10 retailers, he said.

The band encourages consumers to turn over the bag and check the nutritional contents, which reinforces that potatoes are naturally fat-free and contain vitamins.

"We're not trying to convince Atkins' people to eat potatoes. That's hard to do," Pope said. "We're trying to educate potato users, or light potato users, that they are a good and safe product to eat to help lose weight."