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Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution...Sugar Busters!...The South Beach Diet...Protein Power...Enter The Zone...

Just take a look at the health and fitness shelf at any local bookstore and it seems everyone claims to have the secret formula for weight loss. The diet industry in America is a booming business and with good reason, as the USDA reports that two-thirds of American adults are overweight. And when it comes to diets, trends show that more and more people are pushing away the bread basket in favor of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet options.

The idea of reducing carbohydrates for weight loss is not a new phenomenon Dr. Atkins' famous plan was first introduced in 1972. Current estimates on the number of Americans on these controversial low-carb diets vary widely, ranging anywhere from 5 million to 50 million. A Gallup poll commissioned by the Wheat Foods Council at the end of 2002 showed 35 percent of dieters have tried a high-protein, low-carb diet.

Although it is difficult to gauge in hard numbers exactly how these diets are affecting the food industry, common sense would say they spell good news for the meat and egg industries while forecasting concern for grain producers and marketers.

Research by the National Bread Leadership Council reports that 40 percent of Americans are eating less bread than a year ago, and the USDA shows flour consumption has dropped by 10 pounds per person, per year.

"From 1972 to 1997, we saw a steady increase in flour consumption to a peak of 147 pounds per person, per year. By 2002, that number had dropped to 137 pounds an obvious decline over a short period of time," says Betsy Faga, president of the North American Millers' Association (NAMA). "While we can't say for certain that this decline is caused by low-carb diets, we have seen a growth in negative perceptions toward carbohydrates."

The bread and grains industry has taken notice. The National Bread Leadership Council held the first annual Bread Summit in November, focusing in part on low-carb diets. The Tortilla Industry Association held a seminar last spring entitled "An Industry In Crisis: The High-Protein, Low-Carb Diet and Its Effects on the Tortilla Industry." The Wheat Foods Council also has been an active voice for the industry by sponsoring surveys to identify consumer trends and attitudes, along with providing health and nutrition information to dieticians, the media and consumers.

But now the industry is doing more than just talking about the problem. Several groups are beginning to take steps to counteract the bad rap that breads and grains have been receiving.

NAMA and the American Bakers Association (ABA) formed a joint committee in June 2003 to oversee development of an education and public awareness program for grain-based foods. "We need to aggressively communicate the proven health benefits, convenience and tasty appeal of grain-based foods," says Paul Abenante, ABA president and CEO.

Thus far, the alliance has been focused on market research. "This is a big issue to get your arms around," Faga says. "We decided it was better to get solid information before we jumped into any kind of message that might go to the consumer in order to ensure that it is the right message." Once the consumer research is completed, the associations will be looking at what public relations efforts need to be done to address the information that is lacking at the moment. Faga also says the groups need to put forth more funds than have been used in the past towards reaching the consumer.

But with the diversity of the grains industry, many obstacles exist to mounting a public awareness campaign. "Our challenges will be in creating a consistent message that will work across the various groups and making sure our programs complement each other," Faga says. "Our main goal is to get across the idea that carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet and while each group may have a different way of doing that these efforts will help all parts of the industry."

No one can predict whether the recent trends are simply part of a passing diet craze or are here to stay, but the bread and grains industry isn't waiting around to find out. "Over time, every industry from dairy to beef has faced times of challenge," Faga says. "Now it is our turn."

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