What it means to be low carb?

download_jmfTPtWalk through any supermarket, and the low-carb claims scream from packages. Asher’s Chocolates boasts “LOW CARBS!” in bright yellow letters on its sugar-free pecan and caramel bar. GeniSoy’s new chip boldly carries the words “Low Carb Tortilla Chips” in big green letters.

On the corner of the box of Aramana pasta mix is the phrase “Lo-Carb Meal Mix.”

Yet, such specific labels and product names aren’t supposed to be there. The Food and Drug Administration prohibits any nutrient claim that it hasn’t defined. The FDA set a standard for “low-fat” products years ago, but it hasn’t said how few carbs a product must have to be called “low carb.”

The lack of definition — combined with the craze for anything low carb — has created such confusion in the marketplace that even companies are clamoring for regulation of the industry expected to hit $30 billion in sales this year, up from $15 billion last year, says trade Web site LowCarbiz.

“Legitimate companies trying to do the right thing are forced to compete with unscrupulous companies who put false and misleading statements on their labels,” says food and drug law attorney Eric Greenberg of Chicago. “A strong and fair FDA enforcement program is best for all.”

Help may be on the way. The FDA is expected to suggest specific rules this summer. But it’ll take months to implement them and even longer for old packaging to sell out and new packaging to take hold.

‘Buyer beware’

In the meantime, it is “buyer beware,” says Bonnie Liebman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Just how many carb-counting consumers there are depends on who is counting. Estimates range from 20 million up to 59 million. Liebman says no one could blame consumers for being confused, because the FDA hasn’t enforced the rules, allowing a proliferation of illegal low-carb claims.

What’s more, the FDA has signaled that fuzzier phrases are OK. Kellogg’s new Special K, introduced in April, is one example. The box doesn’t say Special K is “low carb” — exactly. Instead, it says the cereal, which has more protein and fiber than the regular Special K, is “for a low-carb lifestyle.” Liebman contends that means the same thing to consumers, especially casual carb-counters.

Product names such as CarbSimple, Carb Aware and Carb Smart are also allowed — again because products aren’t explicitly dubbed “low carb.” Companies can also advertise on packages how many “net carbs” a product has — a designation that stems from the popular Atkins diet. Manufacturers get net carbs by subtracting sugar alcohols, fiber and other carbohydrates that are thought to have minimal impact on blood sugar.

Not everybody buys that, and what the FDA ultimately rules on “net carbs” is the big question, says Michael Season, CEO of Seasons’ Enterprises. His company markets, among other things, a soy snack chip that the package says is “low carb” and contains “5 net carbs.”

Marketers’ bonanza

This much is clear: The power of low-carb marketing is intense.

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