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Carbs slide in supermarkets, not in popularity, study says

Consumers may be buying fewer low-carb packaged foods, but they're sticking to a diet strategy of eating less starch and sugar, according to a survey conducted earlier this summer. The canvass of 1,322 homes found that one in five U.S. consumers was trying as of June to lose or maintain weight by limiting carbohydrate intake. That prevalence of carb counters is "astounding," and "confirms the low-carb lifestyle trend," said the research house here that conducted the survey, Natural Marketing Institute.

NMI did not release a year-ago gauge of how many Americans were trying to reduce their carb consumption. But in a January survey, the researcher found that one-third of the U.S. population was either following a low-carb diet or had tried one in the prior 12 months. That compares with prevalence rates of 24% for 2003 and 17% for the prior year. "People definitely consider the low-carb approach to be legitimate," said NMI managing partner Steve French.

The new research came to light amid a flood of assertions that the carb craze has crested. Recent news reports have asserted that packaged goods manufacturers are seeing a slowdown in sales of items marketed specifically to low-carb dieters.

NMI observed that "short term sales trends of low-carb packaged foods may have peaked," but suggested that the apparent drop-off could be part of a normal marketing cycle. Sales often spike when a new product is introduced because consumers want to give it a try. Others lard their pantries with the item, and hence have no need to stock up for awhile.

But NMI acknowledged that the carb-aversion trend is changing, into something closer to the calorie-counting weight-loss efforts of the past. Avoiding sugar was the tactic most frequently cited by the June respondents following a low-carb strategy (with a mention by 65%), followed by cutting starch intake (62%) and consuming more protein (47%).

Roughly 20% said they're following a specific diet plan, like Atkins or South Beach.

"Low-carb dieting seems to be somewhat of a do-it-yourself affair," noted French.

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