Breadmakers Feel Pain From Atkins Diet
Sat Nov 8, 1:18 PM ET

By DAVID SHARP, Associated Press Writer

PORTLAND, Maine - Some bakers around the country are seeing a similar drop in business: With millions of people trying the diet created by the late low-carb guru Dr. Robert Atkins, overall bread sales are flat or down slightly, while bread-bashing seems to be at an all-time high.

A sign in Stephen Lanzalotta's bakery reads, "Senza il pane tutto diventa orfano." In Italian, that means, "Without bread everyone's an orphan."

But fewer customers are buying his European-style breads and pastries these days ? thanks to the Atkins diet, many regulars are cutting back on carbohydrates. Lanzalotta says the low-carb diet has contributed to an estimated 40 percent drop in business at his shop, Sophia's.

Some customers have even stopped by to apologize.

"They'll say, 'I'm sorry. I haven't been in for six months because I'm on the Atkins diet,'" said Lanzalotta, whose muscular arms are a testament to long hours spent kneading dough.

The National Bread Leadership Council, which says 40 percent of Americans are eating less bread than a year ago, has scheduled what it calls a summit this month in Rhode Island focusing in part on low-carb diets and how to educate the public that breaking bread is still part of a healthy lifestyle.

"It's too bad that we just can't eat all foods in moderation. But no, we have to do something dramatic all the time," said Judi Adams, president of the Wheat Foods Council and a registered dietician, referring to the Atkins diet. "We have to look for this magic bullet."

Estimates of the number of Americans on low-carb diets vary widely, from 5 million to 50 million. Their boycott of bread has exacerbated a sluggish sales trend that was in place before low-carb diets became popular, said John McMillin, a food industry analyst with Prudential Equity Group Inc. in New York.

When Lanzalotta opened his bakery, bread accounted for 75 percent of sales. Now it accounts for just 15 percent. He boosted his dessert offerings and began offering sandwiches to try to make up the difference. He also adapted by selling artwork, including his own paintings.

At Standard Baking, co-owner Alison Pray said sales are nearly flat after previously growing 10 percent to 15 percent a year.

Pray sees plenty of couples stopping by, but often only one partner is eating. The other is cutting carbs.

She's a bit incredulous when customers ask if she produces anything consistent with the Atkins diet. "This one person asked me, 'Can you make a low-carbohydrate bread?' I said, 'I wouldn't know how to do it,'" she said.

Others are adapting. At Anthony's Italian Kitchen, owner Tony Barassa said his customers are ordering Syrian wraps without the wrap and panini sandwiches without the panini. They're also ordering meatballs without the spaghetti.

On Atkins, people can eat cheese, eggs and meat as long as they strictly limit carbohydrates and avoid refined carbs like white flour. White bread, pasta, potatoes and other carbo-loaded foods are blacklisted. The diet was once scorned by the medical establishment, but recent studies have shown that people lose weight without compromising their health.

The Wheat Food Council's Adams, who is based in Colorado, believes low-carb diets are just another fad. And she wonders if they're really helping.

She noted that the nation's obesity rate has continued to grow as flour consumption has declined. Wheat flour consumption has dropped by about 10 pounds a year per person since 1997, she said, calling Americans' tendency to eat too much of everything the real problem.

"We eat 300 more calories a day than we did in 1985," Adams said. "We supersize everything. We eat constantly."

Big Sky Baking Co. in Portland appears to have avoided the worst of the low-carb fallout because its whole wheat bread is the kind recommended for carb-cutters who can't resist a slice every now and again.

Owner Martha Elkus recognizes that times are changing. "The food pyramid has been turned upside down," she said.

Bread bakers aren't the only ones hurting. The pasta industry, the tortilla industry, bagel makers and even brewers of beer have taken their lumps for having too many carbohydrates.

The Tortilla Industry Association held a seminar last spring titled, "An Industry in Crisis: The High-protein, Low-carb Diet and Its Effects on the Tortilla Industry." The National Pasta Association has a "Diet Matters" section on its Web page that focuses on low-carb diets.

Joshua Sosland, executive editor of Milling and Baking News in St. Louis, said it's difficult for consumers to find good information amidst all of the hype that served to overshadow the science behind the diets. Often overlooked is the fact that bread and grains remain an important part of the federal government's diet guidelines.

"Here we have about the most healthy thing in the diet," Sosland said, "and it's being treated like it's poison."

Bakers are changing their products even as they seek to get out the message that bread remains part of a healthy lifestyle.

Flowers Foods' low-carb bread, "Nature's Own Wheat 'n Fiber," has proven to be the company's most successful new product launch to date, said Mary Krier, spokeswoman in Thomasville, Ga.

George Weston Bakeries Inc. has launched "Carb Counting" bread under its Arnold label that carries the Atkins seal. Maine-based Lepage Bakeries has introduced Country Kitchen "Lower Carb" wheat bread.

Panera Bread, a fast-growing chain that offers soups, salads and sandwiches in addition to bread, is also making changes to meet the evolving tastes of its customers. The company is testing three whole-grain breads with fewer grams of carbohydrates per slice.

"Our view of it is not to resist (the low-carb trend) but to recognize it as a real niche," CEO Ron Shaich said.