NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
To hear some people tell it, low-carbohydrate diets have caused the worst crisis for bakers since Marie Antoinette supposedly told bread-starved Parisians to eat cake.
Last month, the National Bread Leadership Council, a trade group, organized a "bread summit," which drew representatives from more than 100 companies -- from wheat millers to muffin marketers.
The most important issue discussed: a growing misperception among consumers that bread is bad for you.
"Bread has been singled out as an easy target by the low-carb diet gurus," said Patrick Davis, spokesman for the trade group.
Other foodmakers are complaining, too. Various manufacturers of ice cream, beer and candy have cited low-carb dieting as a factor in disappointing sales.
The announcements have occasionally seemed like retailers blaming the weather for poor results, e.g., a chance to hide operational shortcomings behind outside culprits. Nevertheless, it is obvious that once-radical theories about carb intake and weight loss are in vogue.
The Atkins Diet -- like such successors as the Zone and the South Beach Diet -- advocates a severe limitation of carbohydrate calories, in favor of fatty, protein-rich food. Meat's good, bread's bad.
Davis, like other critics, argues that approach is too simplistic. "The carb battle is not a black-and-white issue," he says.
Estimates vary widely of the number of people who have incorporated low-carb thinking into their daily diets, from 5 million to more than 30 million.
Many more have been exposed to the concepts. According to Atkins Nutritionals, a food and supplements company founded by the late nutritionist Robert Atkins, the program has been mentioned in the media more than 2.5 billion times in the past three years.
If that's a sign that the people have spoken, it's clear that corporate America is listening. Low-carb products are crowding supermarket shelves, and companies large and small are rushing to bring out new ones.
Big companies targeting niches
Some of the most visible new product introductions of the past year have extolled low-carb benefits. There are far too many to mention, but here are some:
Beer. The low-carb Michelob Ultra has been Anheuser-Busch's most successful launch since Bud Light. At rival SABMiller, sales of once-teetering Miller Lite rose 60 percent in the past quarter. The company says the beer's low-carb makeup was responsible, and that it will soon introduce an even lower-carb version. Coors is about to sell one, too. So is Rolling Rock.
Sweets. Both Russell Stover and Hershey have introduced low-carb candies. Indiana-based Carbolite makes gummi bears as well as ice cream.
Bread. Panera Bread, the fast-growing franchiser of artisanal bread stores, is developing a low-carb variety.
Condiments. H.J. Heinz will soon roll out a low-carb ketchup.
Besides the efforts of major food marketers, scores of small companies are producing for the low-carb niche. The biggest is probably Atkins Nutritionals, a privately held company whose sales have been estimated at around $100 million and growing by 70 percent annually, according to Business 2.0 magazine.
The company sells more than 50 food products and 100 nutritional supplements at such outlets as Wal-Mart, Fred Meyer, and Kroger's, plus vitamin chains like GNC.
And yet, we're still eating more
Even as low-carb offerings surge, a distinct countertrend shows no sign of abating: per capita calorie intake continues to rise, including from carbohydrates.
Earlier this year, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Americans' intake of sugar rose 83 calories per day during a 20-year period ending in the late 1990s.
"Clearly, all of those 83 calories are carbs -- that is what high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners are," said Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina, a co-author of the study.
The nutritionists looked at 9 categories of foods, including salty snacks, soft drinks, hamburgers, Mexican food and pizza. Portion sizes and calorie intake rose in every one except pizza.
Though Popkin concedes that more recent statistics are necessary, the trend seems clear: Americans are still eating more. "There is no sense of a leveling off," he said. "I doubt if this component of carbs is declining."
The Bread Council's survey data suggest that as many as 40 percent of consumers say they plan to eat less bread this year. In practice, though, the results aren't so severe.
Interstate Bakeries, which makes Wonder Bread and Hostess cakes, reported a sales decline of less than 2 percent last year. That may be disappointing for the nation's biggest baker, but it's not exactly a downdraft.
Smaller firms show similar trends. In a survey by the Bread Bakers Guild of America, about half the artisanal bakers in the United States reported no decline in sales versus last year, and about 25 percent said their sales grew.
What's more, other bread products are soaring.
Tortilla sales in supermarkets grew by 11 percent last year, according to market research firm IRI, and they now command a 32 percent share of the bread market, versus 34 percent for white bread. IRI also found that total white bread sales fell only 0.6 percent in 2002, industrywide.
To be sure, the low-carb segment represents a fast-growing opportunity for some. Even so, can a diet fad really decimate a 6,000-year-old product line like bread?
It's a good story. But like tales of a certain French queen's bon mot, it probably is not true.