There has recently been a huge amount of interest, and controversy, surrounding low-carb foods in the UK but low-carb dieters appear to be opting for regimes that are naturally low in carbohydrates, rather than buying foods that are specifically promoted as such, says David Jago, editorial director of market research firm Mintel's GNPD.
"We will inevitably see more low-carb foods being introduced into key European markets, but recent negative media coverage is likely to limit future growth," he predicts.
This month saw the launch of Atkins Nutritionals brand products in the Boots pharmacy chain and other US firms such as Carbolite are also present. But few home firms are going to invest in products that respond to what will likely turn out to be a 'fad', suggests Jago.
"Not many brands are well-placed enough to support a low-carb range," he told NutraIngredients.com. "And this is not the first time that low-carbs have come around. There was also a lot of noise about the diet in the 70s but it never really took off."
A survey published in the summer suggested that around 3 million people have tried the Atkins diet in Britain and four in 10 Britons were expected to follow the diet over the Christmas period. Some foods such as bread and potatoes are reported to have suffered from the popularity of the diet and competing weight loss products such as Unilever's SlimFast brand saw a significant decline in sales in recent months.
But the trend is nowhere near as big as it is in the US, where an estimated 59 million adults are currently 'controlling their carbs', according to figures from the Valen Group. Most of the leading food makers, from Unilever to Frito-Lay, have launched products to meet this consumer demand.
Nevertheless dieting, and therefore sales of weight loss foods, can only grow with increasing warnings about the UK's obesity problem. The International Obesity Task Force think-tank recently warned that without immediate action, up to 40 per cent of the next generation could be obese.
An alternative diet trend, already well established in Australia, could be set to pick up where Atkins leaves off. Glycemic Index (or GI) labelling measures the effect that carbohydrates have on blood glucose levels, and has become commonplace in Australia on a range of packaged products, including leading ice cream brands.
While only specialised health foods such as Cereal products currently carry prominent GI labelling in Europe, more coverage and awareness of the trend may offer opportunity for European businesses, suggests the Mintel analyst.
"The low-carb trend gives companies the perfect opportunity to start talking about GI. It is in some ways a more educated approach to carbohydrate control and we are expecting some food industry players to jump on the low-carb bandwagon to promote this new diet,"said Jago.
A new study by UK researchers published in this month's European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (vol 58, no1, pp121-127) found that people following a low glycemic index diet had a higher fibre intake than those on a healthy eating regime.
And a recent Danone-sponsored nutrition newsletter also highlights the benefits of the GI approach, noting that many scientists and the WHO now use GI as one of the markers of the nutritional quality of carbohydrates. The GI is already widely used by diabetics to assess the effect foods will have on blood glucose levels. The effect of carbohydrates on metabolism could also play a role in the prevention of other related diseases.
With further research, the diet could present wider opportunities than the low-carb trend for an industry increasingly under pressure to help reduce levels of obesity. Currently 65.5 per cent of men and 55.2 per cent of women are overweight or obese in the UK, and the numbers are climbing.