Reaching New Lows

By Kathie Canning
Manufacturers of bakery goods and snack foods are slashing the sugar and ditching the flour to compete in the lucrative low-carb market
“People are terrified of all carbohydrates, as evidenced by the recent mass robbery at a Manhattan restaurant, where 87 patrons turned over their wallets to a man armed only with
a strand of spaghetti.” – Dave Barry
Unless you’ve been living in a cave during the past year or so, you’ve likely found it impossible to escape the carb-bashing craze. The once-esteemed carbohydrate now is being blamed for ills ranging from fatigue to diabetes.
It seems manufacturers can’t reformulate fast enough to rid their products of this dietary “demon.” In fact, during the past two years, food producers have introduced into the market more than 1,000 carbohydrate-curtailed foods, and will launch scores more of such products this year.
The market for these snack and bakery products appears to be strong. Although the jury is still out as to the potential risks of the Atkins diet and other similar plans, millions of consumers continue to test the low-carb waters.
Numerous surveys have attempted to quantify the number of Americans who currently are limiting their carbohydrate intake. Recent studies estimate anywhere from 10 million (the NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y.) to 59 million (the Valen Group, Cincinnati) of us are following a carb-restricted diet at any given time.
Whatever the actual figure might be, it stands only to grow as we look for a magic elixir to shrink our ever-expanding waistlines. According to the American Obesity Association, some 127 million adult Americans now are overweight, and 60 million are obese.
The low-carb market right now, however, bears a slight resemblance to the Wild West. Because no guidelines currently exist, foods labeled as “low-carb” or “reduced-carb” — or publicizing a specific “net carb” content — can vary drastically in actual carbohydrate content. In fact, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) stresses that nutrient content claims must be made in accordance with an applicable regulation.
In response to industry petitions, the agency recently announced its intention to initiate rulemaking proceedings for carbohydrate-related nutrient content claims. Until it writes and finalizes the rule, however, the FDA could force companies to remove such claims from product packaging.
Not surprisingly, the growing anti-carbohydrate sentiment has proved particularly detrimental to the carbohydrate-laden bakery industry, hitting the bread sector the hardest.
“The general idea is that bread consumption is down between five and 10%,” says Jan Van Eijk, research director for baking ingredients at Lallemand/American Yeast, Montreal. “The main factor definitely is low carb.”
It’s not all bad news, however, stresses Steve De Luca, vice president of marketing for Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Puratos Corp. The low-carb push essentially is forcing the bread industry to innovate, he says, and ultimately will lead to “more choices for consumers” and “increased margins” for manufacturers of breads and other baked goods.
Rebuilding Bread
Fiber, resistant starches, proteins, gluten, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols can be used alone or in conjunction with each other to replace the starchy components in bakery products. To reduce a bread’s carbohydrate content, water, fiber and gluten typically stand in for much of the flour, says Van Eijk, while artificial sweeteners replace any of the sugar not needed for the yeast to produce gas.
Because low-carb bread formulations normally boast a high water content, they stand to mold much faster and require higher levels of calcium propionate, says Van Eijk. Their tolerance to long fermentation is not on par with traditional breads, so manufacturers often need to use more yeast and reduce processing times. In addition, he says, dough relaxers frequently are needed “to make the dough more extensible and less elastic.”
Lallemand has a yeast that has been “very successful” in low-carb breads, notes Van Eijk. “It’s a yeast with a high level of glutathione, a dough relaxer. Other people use proteases, enzymes, but we feel this is a good ingredient to use.”
The product is marketed under the Fermaid SuperRelax brand name, notes Van Eijk. It also can help improve the machinability of low-carb doughs, which tend to be “sticky, yet very bucky and elastic,” he adds.
Resistant starches also are popular in reduced-carb bakery goods. Technically a carbohydrate, a resistant starch is absorbed much more slowly into the bloodstream than other starches and doesn’t raise blood glucose levels as quickly.
Bridgewater, N.J.-based National Starch and Chemical Co. offers its Hi-maize product, a high-amylose resistant cornstarch that resists digestion in the small intestine, for bakery and other applications.
“If you put oat fiber or traditional wheat fiber in baked products, it changes the water-holding and changes the texture,” says Rhonda Witwer, business development manager of nutrition for National Starch. The Hi-maize 260 product “delivers a lot of the taste and texture of a high-quality carbohydrate, but it has 60% fiber. We can do a lovely white bread that still delivers 20% resistant starch and about 6 gm. of fiber a serving,” she adds.
Still Sweet
Although artificial sweeteners such as the heat-tolerant sucralose can lighten the carbohydrate load in baked goods ranging from muffins to cream puffs, sugar alcohols, or polyols, also are used. Technically carbohydrates, polyols often play a role in formulations boasting a low “net-carb” content.
Most snack and bakery food players define net carbs as total carbohydrates minus any sugar alcohols and dietary fiber. The controversial net-carb measurement essentially considers the impact a product’s carbohydrates have on the body. Because the body does not absorb fiber, and sugar alcohols are low-glycemic — that is, they have a negligible effect on blood sugar — the school of thought is that neither should be factored into the carbohydrate tally.
“Product developers are looking to replace higher-glycemic carbs such as some starches and sugars with lower-glycemic ingredients,” says Donna Brooks, product manager for Danisco Sweeteners, Ardsley, N.Y. The company’s Litesse polydextrose, lactitol and xylitol have a very low glycemic index, she adds, and can help manufacturers develop bakery products suitable for low-carb dieters.
“Polyols are used to replace the bulk and some to most of the sweetness of sucrose in formulations,” says Ronald Deis, vice president of applications development and technical service for SPI Polyols Inc., New Castle, Del. “Polyols replace sucrose in breads, cookies, nutritional bars, variegates and fillings, cakes, cheesecakes, icings, frostings, fondants, etc.”
Because polyols generally are less sweet than sucrose, product developers must make a few formulation adjustments, notes Deis. “Moisture will need to be readjusted in formulations, and starch gelatinization temperatures may be affected,” he says. “Polyols are non-browning, so color may need to be added.”
SPI Polyols provides a corn syrup replacement chart and a polyols comparison chart on its Web site to help customers in the formulation process, says Deis. The company also works with manufacturers to determine how to incorporate its products most effectively into specific bakery applications.
A Matter of Taste
Of course, consumers will pass on a second purchase if a product doesn’t deliver on taste. And flavor has been a persistent problem for developers of low-carb bakery products, notes Puratos’ De Luca. “There’s a lot of stuff out there that doesn’t taste good,” he stresses. Flavor issues can result from the high levels of fiber and gluten in low-carb bread formulations, Van Eijk notes.
“The high levels of gluten can give bitterness,” he says, “and the fiber can change the taste of the bread. And, of course, some of the stuff that normally is in the flour is missing, so you don’t get the same flavor profile.”
Any ingredient used in large quantities is going to affect taste, stresses Chuck Werstak, application manager for Decatur, Ill.-based Archer Daniels Midland Co. For example, if a manufacturer uses a lot of soy protein to produce a high-protein, lower-carb bread, some consumers will recognize and accept the soy taste while others will not. Masking agents and flavorings can help mitigate the soy flavor, he adds.
To create a taste profile that will be acceptable to consumers, manufacturers must find the right combination of ingredients, says Van Eijk. Shortages of the “best ingredients” present yet another challenge, he adds. For example, processors could have some difficulty purchasing oat fiber, resistant starches and sucralose in large quantities right now.
When processors replace flour with fiber and resistant fibers, the high water-absorption rates can result in bland-tasting, gummy baked goods, says Mark Woodman, marketing manager for Totowa, N.J.-based Caravan Products Co. Inc. His company and other baking technology firms have invested significant resources in research and development for perfecting the right ratios to replace flour, he adds. They can offer much in the way of guidance to customers.
Low-carb mixes can help manufacturers take some of the guesswork out of bread product formulation. Puratos recently unveiled its Carb Choice mixes, which have an “excellent taste,” De Luca says. Flavors introduced into the breads also can help, notes Woodman. To help processors boost low-carb product appeal, Caravan recently introduced flavor varieties such as sun-dried tomato for low-carb mixes.
Health Boost for Snacks
Until recently, the snack food sector seemed perfectly content with its indulgent image. After all, its products were designed to be delicious diversions, not health foods or meal replacements.Thanks to the low-carb movement, however, many manufacturers are looking to introduce healthier alternatives to existing products — and get their rightful slice of the low-carb pie. Other manufacturers simply are enjoying the success resulting from the newfound “healthful” status of old favorites such as pork rinds and beef jerky.
“We are very fortunate to be the only chip-style crunchy snack that has naturally zero carbohydrates,” says Rich Rudolph, president of Lima, Ohio-based Rudolph Foods, a major producer of pork rinds. “I think that a lot of the low-carb or zero-carb alternatives haven’t quite hit the taste mark out there yet.”
Rudolph estimates that the pork rind industry now enjoys “a bit over $500 million” in retail sales. Because of its natural tie in to the low-carb movement, the product is drawing in a lot of new consumers, he says, including women under the age of 45.
“People are putting our product out, merchandising it a lot more significantly, and finding out it sells,” Rudolph says. Frito-Lay recently announced the launch of a soy-based extension of its Doritos and Tostitos tortilla chip lines, and other snack companies also are seeking out soy to slash carbohydrates.
“If you’re looking at a snack that’s a grain-based snack, one way you can decrease the carbs is to use soy,” says Lisa Katic, a nutrition advisor to the Snack Foods Association and president of Arlington, Va.-based K Consulting. However, “there’s not a lot you can do with potato chips,” she adds, considering that the potato itself is a starch.
Although the low-carb push has “certainly beefed up” sales of protein-based snack foods and spurred the development of alternative formulations, sales of most traditional high-carb snack foods also remain strong.
“There are so many great products out there — potato chips and tortilla chips that people love,” Rudolph says. “They’re not going to just give them up long-term.”
Katic views the low-carb movement as being instrumental to an increase in overall health consciousness on the part of manufacturers. “I know snack food manufacturers are looking at all they can do to change their products, whether it be to reduce carbs, fats, salt or trans fat,” she says.
Predicting the Future
Only time will tell whether the low-carb phenomenon is a fad or a profound change in thinking that’s here to stay. However, a number of people believe the movement is simply a springboard for a new era of health awareness on the part of industry and consumers alike.
The low-carb area is too one-sided to last at this level in the years to come, Werstak says. Over the next few years, the American diet will moderate toward “something middle of the road” in terms of carbohydrate intake, he predicts.
“You’re always going to have the hard core folks who push the Atkins diet and eat that all the time,” he says, “but I think for most of us who really aren’t going to be staying on those diets, we want to be eating more healthy foods.”
That might mean more of the “right” complex carbohydrates and less of the “wrong” ones — the simple sugars and other sources of empty calories. It also might mean more fiber, fewer undesirable fats, less salt, and portion and calorie control.
“Low-carb and low-net-carb products have resulted in more awareness of the amount of carbohydrates we consume, their effect on total calories and their potential effect on blood sugar,” Deis says. “Product developers will take a closer look at the nutritional balance of their products. The important thing to remember is that nutritional quality needs to be balanced with taste and texture.”
The low-carb movement has been a good thing in the sense that it has forced the baking industry — particularly the bread industry — to become more proactive in product promotion, says Van Eijk. Bread manufacturers are just beginning to understand the need to sing their products’ praises — to talk about the folic acid, the fiber and the other ingredients added to promote health, he says.
For the bakery industry, low-carb “is not really the solution,” Van Eijk says.
“But there’s a message that the industry has to do something,” he notes. “Bread has to be a little bit different. There’s a negative perception of bread, that it makes you fat, which of course is not true — but that’s the perception.”
Van Eijk predicts that tomorrow’s supermarket shelves will hold, among other bread products, a “different type of bread” that addresses not only health and wellness issues, but also obesity concerns. This bread might boast more fiber for “increased satiety, a low-glycemic index [and] that kind of thing,” he says.
Whatever the future holds for the low-carb arena, taste will remain king when it comes to repeat purchases. The wise manufacturer understands how important consumer testing is to a product’s eventual commercial acceptance — and will invest the time and dollars required.