NEW YORK (Money magazine) - "The low-carb products are selling like crazy," says Ali Shabbir, owner of a General Nutrition Centers health food store in Manhattan. "And new ones are coming out every day."
The Atkins effect
He's not kidding. According to Productscan Online, a Naples, N.Y., firm that monitors marketing trends, more than 1,000 low-carb packaged products have recently been introduced, everything from muffins to mac 'n' cheese. Even big players like H.J. Heinz, Hershey's and Anheuser-Busch are getting into the act. It's all great news for the estimated 20 million Americans who have turned to a low-carbohydrate regime to control their weight.
Or is it? The annals of dieting, after all, are littered with disgusting packaged products. They may have been low in fat or salt -- or some other culinary bogeyman du jour -- but they tasted awful.
In an effort to determine which low-carb items are fabulous fakes and which are just plain lousy, we convened a 12-member tasting panel and munched our way through a staggering number of items. Many low-carb products are shockingly expensive -- often two or three times the price of a fully loaded version. Only the best of them are worth the high price.
Our reviews include the number of grams of carbohydrate per serving. In accordance with manufacturers' common practice, we've listed the "effective" carb count, which subtracts from the total both fiber and a class of oddball ingredients known as sugar alcohols -- the secret sauce responsible for many of the products' deceptively sugary taste.
When consumed in quantity, though, sugar alcohols can make for unpleasant hours in the bathroom and may even knock your diet off track. As with so many things, moderation is the key.
Health food stores and supermarkets are rapidly expanding their low-carb offerings, but for the most extensive selection try Castus Low Carb Superstores (lowcarbsuperstores.com; 888-642-2700), Low Carb Connoisseur (low-carb.com; 888-339-2477) or Synergy Diet (synergydiet.com; 877-877-1558). Lowcarbluxury.com is a great source of reviews, recipes and support. And our favorite dessert in the genre can be found at Cheesecake Aly (cheesecakealy.com; 800-555-8862).
Eat dessert first! Sweet stuff -- chocolate in particular -- is easily the most successful category in the low-carb lineup. Top honors go to the swooningly rich Pure De-Lite Chocolate Truffles (86｢ and about 1 gram apiece) and the buttery Judy's Sugar-Free Caramels (about $1; 1g each). For movie munchies, pick up Russell Stover's Low Carb Toffee Squares and Sugar Free Mint Patties ($1.95 and 1g per serving). But avoid the new Reese's Sugar-Free Peanut Butter Cups ($2.25 a bag; 3g) unless you really enjoy that bathroom time.
We may all scream for ice cream, but Atkins Endulge Ice Cream ($10 a box; 4g) will leave you yawning. Instead, browbeat your local grocery store into carrying the delicious LeCarb Frozen Desserts (about $3.25 a pint; 4g), which come in flavors like lemon and cinnamon, and are very low in those pesky sugar alcohols. Feeling indulgent? Top things off with a spoonful of chocolate-hazelnut Twist spread ($6.29; 2g), a dead ringer for Nutella.
When it comes to low-carb baked goods, you're better off hitting the kitchen yourself. We loved the creamily lush Low Carb Cheesecake from Cheesecake Aly ($11.95 per cake; 3g a slice), but other treats we tried ranged from dull to dreadful. Synergy Diet's Cake Rolls ($15 per cake; about 5g) manage to be salty, bitter and greasy at the same time, and the Pure De-Lite High Protein Peanut Butter Chew cookies ($2.60 a package; no carbs) have a texture like modeling clay and a uniquely repulsive aroma.
Bacon and eggs are all very well, but eventually a person needs pancakes. Both mixes we tried -- Atkins ($7 a box; 3g per serving) and Carbsense ($7.50; 3g) -- produced tasty flapjacks that teamed nicely with maple-flavored Keto Syrup ($5; 2g).
While neither Keto Old Fashioned Oatmeal Hot Cereal ($7; 3g) nor Atkins Sweet Maple Hot Cereal ($7; 3g) will remind you of steel-cut Irish porridge oats, either would be fine on a cold winter morning, especially with a few berries mixed in.
But even the dog refused to eat Synergy Diet's weird and gummy Better Powdered Doughnuts ($6 a package; 2.5g per disgusting doughnut). We couldn't think of anything they were better than.
Bread, like chocolate, is one of low-carbing's real success stories. Irene's Health Bakery Low Carb Bread ($6 a loaf; 4g a slice) and Atkins Sliced Bread ($5; 3g) both are boring taken straight, but they toast well and provide a nifty grilled-cheese delivery system.
Synergy Diet's CarbXtract French Bread ($6.50; about 4.5g) has good texture and flavor, though slices are only slightly bigger than a postage stamp. For a splurge, top a slice with one of the fabulous sugar-free fruit spreads from La Nouba ($5.50; 1.6g per serving) or Colac ($6; 1g), both of which knock the pants off many full-sugar preserves.
In the low-carb world, cheeseburgers are diet food, but for the true experience you'll need a bun. Both Synergy Diet ($6.50 a pack and a whopping 18g per bun) and Irene's Health Bakery ($7; 5g) come to the rescue, and we'd add a dollop of the nicely spicy Keto Ketchup ($6; 1g per serving).
You prefer Mexican? Synergy Diet's Adios Carbs Tortillas ($4 a package; 6g per tortilla) make tasty enchiladas, but La Tortilla Factory Fat-Free Tortillas ($4.25; 3g) get the job done with fewer carbs.
Happily, low-carb snacks have come a long way since the introduction of the hideous Keto Chips ($4 for a bag you will never finish; 3g per serving), which smell terrible and taste worse. Carbsense Tortilla Chips ($3.89; 8g) are a nice toasty option, but Atkins Crunchers ($2.50; 4g) have actual corn flavor and a good chomp, with half the carbs.
When it comes to crackers, we're big fans of Cheeters Diet Treats ($6.30; 2g) and Andre's CarboSave Crackerbread ($5.95; 3g), both of which are sturdy enough to stand up to a hunk of cheese and taste swell even on their own.
Pasta and pizza
Now that bread has been conquered, pasta is the Holy Grail of low-carbdom. And like the cup in question, it remains elusive. Dieters would love to bed their stews on a nest of noodles, but all the brands we tried, including Pastalia Low Carb Original Fettuccine ($7 a bag; 7g per serving) and Keto Spaghetti ($5; 5g), were unpleasantly rubbery -- with a flavor that can only be described as grassy. And there isn't enough cheddar in the world to save the ghastly Keto Low Carb Macaroni & Cheese ($5; 5g).
If you're thinking about nuking a little low-carb Italian lunch in the office microwave, think again. Atkins Frozen Cheese Pizzas ($17 a package; 20g per pizza) are simultaneously mushy and tough, and the Atkins Italian Frozen Entrees (price and carb counts vary) taste like low-rent airplane food.
Furthermore, the folks at Domino's have nothing to fear from either the LowCarbolicious Pizza Kit ($9 a box; roughly 4g a slice) or the Low Carb Chef Pizza Kit ($17; 3g), both of which produce something resembling a baked, tomato-flavored paper towel. Synergy Diet's pre-baked Better Pizza Crusts ($4; 18g per pizza) taste much better and provide enough heft to make a meal, but the equally hefty carb count puts them beyond the reach of many low-carbers, particularly since sauce and cheese add carbohydrates of their own.
By and large, dieters at dinnertime probably will be best served by avoiding the packaged products and chowing down instead on protein and fresh veggies. There's always room for dessert.