PICKING UP THE SLACK

As low-carbohydrate diets gain momentum with overweight Americans, nutritional deficiencies and the eternal search for the "magic pill" are driving sales of related supplements and vitamins.In a little more than a year, the low-carb diet movement started by the late Dr. Robert Atkins in 1972 has gone from medical pariah to mainstream acceptance with the release of credible research and subsequent

As low-carbohydrate diets gain momentum with overweight Americans, nutritional deficiencies and the eternal search for the "magic pill" are driving sales of related supplements and vitamins.

In a little more than a year, the low-carb diet movement started by the late Dr. Robert Atkins in 1972 has gone from medical pariah to mainstream acceptance with the release of credible research and subsequent media attention.

Most experts contacted by SN emphasized that the low-carb diets are mainly about the food. Yet, an increasing number of related vitamins and supplements are taking their place on store shelves near supermarket pharmacies and in health and beauty care sections, and some are starting to sell very well.

For example, the SPINS natural products research company in San Francisco recently reported a preliminary market analysis that starch blockers increased in sales 900% from September 2002 to October 2003 in natural supermarkets, as well as in mainstream food, drug and other retail chains, said Amy Jacobsen, spokeswoman. This growth is from a small base, she noted, but it reflects strong consumer interest.

Among the other low-carb-related vitamin and supplement items popping up in stores: multivitamins; proteins like soy and whey to augment the diet; products like bitter orange and green tea, which are said to block fat absorption and calories; and a 14-day starter kit from Atkins, which includes the multivitamins, "essential oils," and a dietary supplement. Meanwhile, sales at Atkins Nutritionals, Ron-konkoma, N.Y., are expected to double this year and again next year, according to a media report.

Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash., will begin low-carb sections starting in February, said Gordon Thompson, GM/HBC buyer. These will include supplements, nutritional bars and candy.

"It will be huge. The whole category is on fire. It will be a great boon to sales for anyone jumping on the bandwagon, provided they merchandise the products correctly," he said.

While intended as a stopgap for strict low-carb dieters who must eat carbohydrates upon occasion, the rapid growth of starch blockers is more likely due to the faddish behavior of consumers who see it as a "magic pill" for weight loss, retailers told SN.

"Before, it was ephedra. And now it's, 'I'll take this pill, and it will block my carbohydrate intake,"' said Troy DeGroff, sales and marketing director, Earth Fare, Asheville, N.C. "But the basis of a low-carb diet is your diet. It's going to take a lifestyle change, which is hard for all of us, myself included."

However, starch blockers work in helping to control blood sugars, said Skye Lininger, president, Healthnotes, Portland, Ore. "For people who want to eat starch or carbohydrates, it's a great thing that they can take prior to a meal that is going to include starch. They seem to be safe, although taking a lot of them could cause diarrhea," he said.

Earth Fare, an expanding natural foods supermarket company with seven stores, will shortly be introducing a product called Renew Life, which DeGroff described as a "low-carb cleanse" that restores the body's acid-alkaline balance. "One of our concerns about the low-carb craze is that whenever anybody eats an increased amount of protein, it upsets the acid-alkaline balance of the body," he said.

Other products that help balance the pH include extract of chlorophyll, or "super green" foods like barley grass and wheat grass, he said. Also, Stevia, a natural sweetener not approved in this country to be sold as a food product, can be sold as a nutritional supplement. "We sell a ton of Stevia because people are using it as a zero-calorie sweetener," DeGroff said.

There's potential for supermarkets to succeed with vitamins and supplements to enhance low-carb diets, said Mary Mulry, senior director of product development and standards, Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo. "If it's packaged for low-carb diet followers, it's an opportunity for supermarkets to sell additional product," she said.

The natural foods supermarket chain will hold a promotion in January that will highlight with shelf-talkers certain supplements that aid a low-carb lifestyle, she said. Vitamins and supplements that assist in controlled-carb intake can include carnitine; conjugated linoleic acid, which increases lean body mass; metabolism boosters like green tea extract; and chromium, which moderates insulin uptake, said Mulry.

Lininger of Healthnotes said he has a list of 25 dietary supplements that are often taken by people trying to diet. Besides starch blockers, he mentioned bitter orange, citrus aurantium and green tea as increasing metabolism and aiding in weight loss. Meanwhile, proteins like soy and whey can help augment a low-carb diet, and "a very good, basic multiple vitamin containing minerals" will cover deficiencies resulting from the elimination of carbohydrates.

"Consumers who are into the low-carb lifestyle want a lot of choices for solutions," said Laurie Demeritt, president and chief operating officer, The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. They are looking for multiple options for supporting the diet, and supermarkets can tap into this desire, she said.

"Consumers who have made moderate lifestyle changes [in carbohydrate intake] are the type of people who are mainstream supermarket shoppers," Demeritt said.

"Our approach is the total picture, expanding our low-carb sections ranging from four feet to 12 feet, offering snacks, breads, Atkins supplements, powders and bars," said Ken Bruce, director of nonfoods, Martin's Super Markets, South Bend, Ind.

The category will "go like gangbusters" in January and February, Bruce said. "It's the time of year the diet merchandise goes because of New Year's resolutions," he said. "Low-carb isn't so much a fad; I think people are really paying attention to their carb intake."

Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., also is going for the integrated approach to low-carb products, said Claire D'Amour-Daley, vice president, corporate communications. Starting this fall, the retailer began putting low-carb bakery, frozen items and supplements together in its stores.

Regarding the low-carb Atkins vitamins and supplements in particular, she said, "They're doing fine right now, but you have to wonder if people will get tired of forking over the money for them." Currently, Big Y promotes the low-carb supplements in the weekly circular. Some retailers reported poor experiences with products related to low-carb diets, but they may have been ahead of the curve. For example, Kowalski's, Woodbury, Minn., tried merchandising Atkins vitamins and supplements in its diet section a year ago without success, and discontinued the line, said Debbie Leland, natural and specialty foods buyer.

Bashas' Markets, Chandler, Ariz., had a similar experience with "fat burning" products, said Sue Vodika, HBC buyer and category manager. "We couldn't move them." As a result, the retailer does not carry the starch blockers in its HBC department, she said.

However, these items are carried in Bashas' natural products section, noted Paul Howland, Natural Choice buyer/merchandiser at Bashas'. "I've got a couple in my set, and they do pretty well." The diet products category in general is "not real hot at this time ... but of that not-so-hot category, the low-carb items like the starch blockers are probably doing better than most," he said.

"People don't want to take pills. They are looking at the foods they are eating," Howland said.