Trend or Fad?

Once in a while, there comes a change that dramatically affects an entire industry in a relatively short period of time. When such a change occurs, there is a need for an immediate understanding of the new environment. Such a change is now occurring in the food industry. A substantial percentage of the population has turned to low-carb diets, such as the Atkins and South Beach diets. The popularity of these diets has exploded.

Figures published on this topic over the past year may have been substantially underestimated. The Natural Marketing Institute claims that 12 percent of the adult population has tried a low-carb diet, while NPD Foodworld claims that only 3 percent is currently on a low-carb diet. These studies were conducted several months ago. Given the recent media attention on low-carb diets, this raises questions about the accuracy of the results. If we are talking about only 2 percent of the population, then it's not really urgent. If it's 10 percent, we need to do something now.

General Findings

Opinion Dynamics Corporation conducted research on this issue in December 2003 and January 2004. The surveys, each of which sampled 900 adults in the United States, found the following:

  • About 11 percent of the public says they are on a diet that restricts carbs.
  • The popularity of the diets has led to substantial shifts in the consumption of a wide variety of foods.
  • People who say they follow a low-carb diet rarely do so all of the time, particularly when eating in restaurants.
  • Low-carb dieters generally prefer purchasing food in grocery stores that have specific "low-carb" labels on the packaging.
  • When dining out, people are less likely to choose a restaurant based on a "low-carb" menu than when purchasing at grocery stores.
  • When low-carb dieters were asked what food would be/was the most difficult to give up on , many were more likely to mention pasta.

Overall Frequency of the Diet

Based on the results of two separate surveys totaling 1,800 completed phone interviews conducted in December 2003 and January 2004, approximately 19 percent of those who are not currently on a low-carb diet may try one in the next two years.

While these figures are higher than others have found, the following facts must be kept in mind:

  • Earlier studies do not reflect recent changes in which low-carb diets have received an extremely high amount of media coverage. It is likely low-carb diets have increased substantially in the last few months.
  • The food industry has reported large shifts in the consumption of certain foods, which would be unlikely if the popularity of the diet was as small as had been reported by the media.

Demographic Differences

Crafting an effective strategy depends on a clear understanding of who is likely to be on a low-carb diet. Our research found the following:

  • Upper income individuals are more likely to try low-carb diets than people with a lower income. Nearly one-third of people with incomes over $75k/year say they have tried a low-carb diet, while 15 percent with incomes over $75K say they are currently on such a diet.
  • The diets are more popular among people between the ages of 46 and 64 than any other age groups. Few people older than 65 are on such a diet.
  • Minorities expressed a greater interest in trying low-carb diets in the future than non-minorities.
  • Men are no more and no less likely to be on a low-carb diet than women are. The following graph shows the differences between people of various income levels, which is the single biggest determinant regarding the diets.

People rely more on low-carb labels and advertising when buying at the grocery store than when choosing a restaurant. Almost two-thirds of people on low-carb diets say it is important to them that a food has a specific low-carb brand label on packaging when making a purchase. Only 38 percent of low-carb consumers say it is important that a restaurant advertise low-carb offerings. This is further evidence that people often follow low-carb diets selectively and are more likely to do so at home than when eating out.

Finally, ODC asked respondents what type of food would be, or was, most difficult to give up. Almost one-third of non-dieters said bread and bread products. Twenty percent mentioned pasta.

However, those actually on a low-carb diet were more likely to mention pasta as the most difficult food to give up (36 percent), while only 24 percent mentioned bread. This indicates that pasta may be more difficult to give up than initially imagined. For this reason, low-carb dieters may be more interested in low-carb pasta alternatives than any other similar low-carb food.

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