INDUSTRY THRIVING UNDER CARB-DEPRIVED LABEL RULES

Karen Duester describes working recently with a client whose pretzels were re-formulated to cash in on the hottest trend in food. The working title: Carbohydrate-Deprived Pretzels.Carb-Deprived? Carb-Impoverished, Carb-Destitute and Carbo-Robbed can't be far behind."People are coming up with all kinds of creative ways to get the carbohydrate message across," said Duester, president of the Food Consulting

Karen Duester describes working recently with a client whose pretzels were re-formulated to cash in on the hottest trend in food. The working title: Carbohydrate-Deprived Pretzels.

Carb-Deprived? Carb-Impoverished, Carb-Destitute and Carbo-Robbed can't be far behind.

"People are coming up with all kinds of creative ways to get the carbohydrate message across," said Duester, president of the Food Consulting Co., a Del Mar, Calif.-based firm specializing in food labels.

The creativity stems from the fact that describing carbohydrates is limited not just by the imagination of the marketer but also by the Food and Drug Administration. More precisely, the FDA has regulations in place regarding nutrient content claims such as "low," "free" and "reduced," but has yet to rule on their definitions regarding carbohydrates. That's left food companies eager to cash in on booming diet trends scouring their thesauruses and lobbying the FDA to establish specific carbohydrate definitions.

The latter could take months at the very least, and perhaps years. In the meantime, manufacturers and retailers should use caution about how they communicate the low-carbohydrate message to consumers.

"Food manufacturers need a way to communicate the carbohydrate content to consumers who will be choosing those products," said Duester. "Even if it's only a marketing strategy, they need a way to do it legally."

Manufacturers who mislabel food packages that come to the attention of the FDA are usually informed by way of a warning letter. She recommended that retailers should also be mindful of misleading signs: For example, until guidelines are established, stores should promote items as "part of a low-carb lifestyle" rather than simply "low-carb." "The bagel store I frequent advertises their bagels as low-carb," she said. "Technically, that's not correct."

The Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington, in February petitioned the FDA to establish regulations governing carbohydrate content claims. An FDA spokesman told SN that carbohydrate labeling is likely to be listed as a priority item on the agency's 2004 agenda, which is expected to be announced shortly.

When considering a new rule, the FDA reviews petitions, solicits additional information if needed, and will post a proposed ruling in public dockets for a 90-day comment period, the spokesman said. Any final ruling could include adjustments made as a result of comments received. Often, this makes implementation of new FDA rules a lengthy process. The FDA's regulations regarding trans fats, for example, first arose in a 1999 proposal and a final ruling was not reached until last year.

As low-carbohydrate diets still inspire some debate, a ruling may not be swift. At least one group, the Carbohydrate Awareness Council, charges that the GMA petition is faulty. The Falls Church, Va.-based group's concerns include the GMA's recommendation of meals or foods with 9 grams of carbohydrate per 100 grams of product being defined as "low carbohydrate." It also takes issue with the GMA's suggestion of carbohydrate descriptors running along the whole range of the nutrient, from "low" up to "good source," said Gil Wilshire, president and chief scientific officer of the CAC.

LOW-/HIGH-CARB PRODUCT CHANGES IN 2003 $ VOLUME

HIGH-CARB PRODUCTS

Product: 2003 $ volume; % change vs. year ago

Fresh potatoes: n/a; - 10

Cookies: 168.7M; - 7.3

Carb. beverages: 9.63B; - 1.6

White bread: 2.19B; - 2.7

Refrg. orange juice: 2.78B; - 2.8

LOW-CARB PRODUCTS

Product: 2003 $ Volume; % Change vs. yr. ago

Nuts: 1.82B; +11

Diet carb. beverage: 4.44B; +7.5

Lunch meats: 3.51B; +3.8

Bacon: 2.10B; +9.8

Meat snacks: 296.3M; +15.9

Source: ACNielsen Strategic Planner