- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

PORTLAND, Maine - The bread industry, hoping for a comeback after last year’s low-carb fad, is trying to get people to eat bread because it’s good for them — especially when it’s made with whole grains the government says we should all have.

Bread makers learned from the low-carb craze that they need to market themselves better. So, three weeks after the government issued guidelines calling for adults to have three 1-ounce servings of whole grains a day, the industry is promoting whole-grain products and starting a campaign touting the health benefits of bread.

Industry officials say dietary trends are working in their favor, as low-carb peaked early last year. By year’s end, they say, sales of fresh bread in supermarkets were down by less than a percentage point in dollar terms, although volume sales were down 4 percent.

“There was an all-out assault on our industry, but people are coming back to bread and are realizing why they loved it in the first place,” said Lee Schwebel of Schwebel Baking Co. in Youngstown, Ohio. “Try making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without bread.”

Yesterday, the industry will begin a low-carb counterattack pointing to benefits of grains as part of an overall diet. The $3.5 million Grains for Life campaign will be announced in New York and Washington with billboards, posters and people dancing in bread costumes.

“The message we’re trying to get out is it’s the calories, not the carbs,” said Lori Sachau of the Wheat Foods Council in Colorado.

Critics contend it was predictable that fickle American consumers would eventually tire of the latest diet, but bread industry officials were surprised at how quickly low-carb seemed to fall out of favor. A survey by NPD Group, an independent marketing information company, found the number of American adults on any low-carb diet peaked at 9.1 percent last February and dropped to 3.6 percent by mid-November.

“The path low-carb has taken is not unlike a lot of other stuff except that it burst so fast. It went up very fast. Sometimes when things go up fast, they come down just as fast,” said Stan Osman from Interstate Bakeries Corp., maker of Wonder Bread, Twinkies and other baked goods.

But that’s not to say the nation is about to see a bread boom. Bread sales were flat even before the obsession with the Atkins, South Beach and other carb-limiting diets, and the industry can’t make up for the lost ground overnight.

While bread is still a staple for most Americans, they are not eating it as often as they used to, causing a slow decline that has been offset only by a growing population. On average, Americans ate 136 pounds of wheat flour in 2003, a drop of 10 pounds over a three-year period, Miss Sachau said.

In Portland, Stephen Lanzalotta opened his Italian bakery in 2000 with bread accounting for about 80 percent of sales. Business dipped in part because of low-carb diets, and bread now accounts for 20 percent of sales.

Mr. Lanzalotta stayed in business by boosting his offerings of sandwiches and pastries and expanding his menu with breakfast and Sunday brunch.

“I’m becoming more of a restaurateur than a baker. It’s wearing on me. From an ideological point of view, I don’t enjoy cooking as much as baking,” he said.

Around the corner, the number of low-carb dieters at Anthony’s Italian Kitchen has dropped, and they are drifting back to pizza, pasta and panini sandwiches. Owner Tony Barassa used to sell about 50 low-carb lunches a day; now he’s lucky to sell a dozen.

Mr. Barassa said his customers tell him they got bored with Atkins-style diets, which are heavy on salads, meats, cheeses and eggs. White bread, pasta, potatoes and other carbo-loaded foods are blacklisted.

“It’s something you get tired of,” he said. “How many omelets can you eat?”

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