Video: Behind the diet craze

NBC News with Brian Williams
By Kevin Tibbles Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/19/2004 2:10:22 PM ET 2004-01-19T19:10:22

You may have noticed an invasion at your local grocery store lately: it's the "low-carb" phenomenon that's sweeping America -- and shopper Janet Isabelli, for one, has been swept right along with it.

"It's pretty unreal," the 26-year-old publicist said as she wheeled her cart down the aisles of Chicago's Treasure Island market.

"I think even in the last four months I've noticed a huge difference. I feel like there are all of these incredible products that have come our from a number of different companies that offer a lot of options for people on a low-carb diet."

Once confined to a small niche, the market for low-carb foods has exploded as an estimated 30 to 50 million Americans look for new ways to lose weight. That's an opportunity for profit that the big food giants can't afford to pass up.

Grocery shelves are now groaning under the weight of everything from low-carb peanut butter and salad dressing, to low-carb pancake and brownie mix. Restaurants from fancy to fast food now push low carb on the menu.

"I believe they are doing this because the food industry is not a fast-growing industry," said Harry Balzer, who has spent 20 years tracking what America eats for the research firm, NPD. "So when you find something that is growing and particularly the broad appeal weight loss has in this country, you see a stampede for all manufacturers.

As a result, producers big and small are falling over themselves trying to get into the game. "Even if you don't have a product out right now, you're considering it," Balzer said.

Food giants get into game
Food giant Unilever is launching a new range of low carb foods under the banner "carb options" in hopes of tapping into a billion dollar a year phenomenon.

Unilever's big sellers, like Skippy Peanut Butter, Wishbone Salad Dressing, Ragu Spaghetti Sauce and Lipton's Soups, will now have 18 low-carb cousins.

"This is in my opinion the biggest shift in behavior in the low-fat craze since the mid-80's," said Unilever CEO Michael Polk.

"If you asked consumers who were watching their weight a year ago, 11 percent would have told you that carbohydrates matter. Today that number is 40 percent," Polk said.

Latest way to lose weight without changing behavior 
According to Balzer, research shows that 61 percent of Americans want to lose 20 or more pounds. So the incentive to hit the shelves with low-carb products is certainly there.

But Balzer is quick to point out, the low-crab craze is hardly the first diet to sweep the nation.  "For the last 20 years this country has been looking for a way not to change, but to still lose weight."

"They tried it with sugar-free, low-cholesterol, low-fat and now it's low carbs. I'm sure the early interest in this is people trying new things. The question is, in four or five years where is this going to be?"

"I don't think it's a fad, absolutely not," said Joe Zedella, who stocks his Chicago market with dozens of low-carb products.

"We've seen too much growth in our business here and in other parts of the country. This thing is huge!"

As for Janet Isabella, in four months she managed to lose 30 pounds. She's sold on low carb, and the fact the stores are filling up with more and more low carb products is well, gravy.

"Honestly, I don't ever remember seeing an explosion like this," she said.

America's big food producers now hope people don't lost their appetite for all things low carb.

Kevin Tibbles is an NBC News correspondent based in Chicago.

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