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09.2004

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Low Carbs, What are You Missing?

Article By: Jessica Krane, MS, RD

"I'll have a Diet Coke with my hamburger and French fries."
"I'll have an Atkins-friendly steak with crispy onion rings and cream of spinach as my vegetable."
"It's a fat-free cookie, so I can eat the whole box."



These are just some of the traps that many Americans have fallen into in the past decade. Are any of these diet fads really valid? How do they work and, if they do, then why is over 60% of the population overweight?

Diet and food crazes are all very pressing issues which I deal with as a nutritionist. So now I am being asked about low-carb alcoholic beverages. Low-carb wines, beers and spirits are the new contestants to the low-carb craze. Or, is it not a craze and should it be a way of life? Why exactly is the alcohol industry changing the composition of the beverage? Is it worth it to alter the composition and flavor of something for a couple grams of carbs?

WHAT'S in the BOTTLE All alcohol products are fermented, meaning the yeast eats the sugar up, only leaving the residual sugars, which is what the carbohydrates are. All spirits are naturally low in carbohydrates to begin with. They are composed of wheat, grains, rice, and barley, yet they are not only fermented, they are distilled. This in turn increases the alcohol content per ounce and decreases the sugar (carbohydrate) content. Beer and wine are different in this sense. They are typically higher in carbs and lower in alcohol content per ounce. Therefore, manufacturers are going an extra step to decrease the sugar content, hoping in the process to save the quality and flavor.

IT'S ALL ABOUT the FLAVOR Let's talk about flavor. The average consumer cannot tell the difference between a low carb wine and a regular wine. If told though, the immediate assumption is that it wouldn't be good. Typically, the low carb wines are a bit dryer in taste, as they have more sugars fermented out. Consumers haven't jumped on it right away, because generally low-carb products do not taste great. For example, when people think low carb, they think about the low carb chocolate or energy bars, which in comparison to the original, do not taste great and have a very specific aftertaste. Doug Epstein, Executive Vice President at Horizon Beverages believes that consumers are in need of education. Epstein feels that the low-carb craze is, "good for the industry and should be promoted, especially the fact that it is arguably healthy."

Because carb awareness is so hot right now, it is up to the beverage industry to attract new users and create long-term growth &endash; so that it is not a trend. As a sales person in the beverage industry, Epstein is aware of how carb conscious people are. "You are out to dinner meetings all the time and entertaining in this business; therefore, as a sales person, I've noticed that people watch their bread and pasta intake," says Epstein. So why not add another dimension to the mix and watch carbs with alcohol as well?

WINES for WEIGHT WATCHERS Most wines contain 5 to 7 carbs per serving. The new wines that have come out have between 1.6 and 1.9 carbs per serving. Alcohol tends to be viewed by many as an indulgence or as a way to celebrate. The question is, do people want to be "healthy" when they are celebrating, or having their downtime? Will they feel cheated? This is where education and national taste campaigns come in. If these products are high quality and are promoted properly, they can sell themselves. Consumers will realize that they can "party healthy" instead of having an all or nothing attitude. This is the challenge.

The key is to change the mind set that low-carb tastes bad. If this can be done, then it won't be a fad.

PASSING FAD? On an opposing note, many people in the alcohol beverage industry do not feel this is a good craze - that it is instead a flash-in-the-pan trend. Josh Pierry, President of Beer Summit, feels that "people should not worry about carbs in beer, because it is not really too high in carbs, compared to a dessert wine, for example." From his experience, the low carb craze has not affected attendance in any way at beer shows, and he estimates that this low-carb philosophy will become similar to "low-fat". In addition, he is wary that low-carb beers will promote over-consumption, similar to fat-free foods. If someone orders a low-carb beer, will that innately make him or her drink more, in the same manner that boxes of fat-free, but calorie-laden cookies were consumed in the late 1990s? It's not carbs that increase weight, it's excess consumption.

In addition to this, many restaurant owners do not want to get on this low-carb bandwagon. They pride themselves on their standards and concepts, and feel that they may lose credibility and consistency by offering the newest trend in alcoholic beverages. "When customers come back year after year, it's because they appreciate our standards and consistent quality. It makes them feel special," states one local Boston restaurant owner. Restaurants are able to create more of a home-like environment, where people do not have to worry about what they should decide between, in terms of ordering. If someone is going to go out to eat, many times they do not want to be bombarded with the idea of having to chose between "diet and health conscious" alternatives and they just want to relax and order what they really came there to order and enjoy. Therefore, these new choices on a menu could create discomfort and anger in a customer who wants to splurge and feel decadent, and leave their diet woes at home.

Also, similar to some restaurants, craft beer drinkers are still loyal to that product and will not stray from quality and flavor in order to lessen their load of carbs. "There are a lot of really interesting micro-brewed beers," states Pierry. In fact, in Pierry's opinion, craft beer drinkers are increasing more than low-carb drinkers are increasing. In addition, craft beers which are really exceptional have the ability to create a higher profit per bottle for that particular niche. Therefore, if the low-carb craze is a fad, something will replace it soon and the original leaders will remain ahead without having to change a thing.

THE SKINNY on BEER The interesting fact is that low-carb beer isn't even that different in carb content from a regular beer. For instance, Budweiser has 2.7 carbs per serving versus the 1 to 2 carbs per serving in a low-carb beer. If you have 3 Budweisers at 2.7 carbs or 5 low-carb beers, then you would actually be having either the same amount, if not more carbs in one sitting. Depending on the kind of beer you drink, you could end up with 600 more calories, not to mention the alcohol content in the end. Is this really worth it? Also, low-carb beers actually have a higher alcohol content per serving, as the manufacturers need to use adjuncts, like corn, instead of barley or malt to decrease the sugar levels. They use these adjuncts, which in turn pulls out a lot of the original flavor of the beer, and inject it with carbon dioxide. What you have in the end is bubbly water with alcohol, not such a strong flavor, but less carbs.

Even though there are worries and fears of over-consumption, Epstein feels that, "if this low-carb craze increases responsible consumption, then it is a good thing for the entire industry." In terms of straight profit, it does make sense for a store to sell low-carb beers, wines and spirits. Brown-Forman wines sold 5000 cases of their new 1.X wines in the first 3 weeks. Even if a storeowner is against the idea of the low-carb lifestyle, realistically they should know that this is what the people want.

People want a quick fix, or at least they want to feel like they can still have their drink or two with dinner and not feel so guilty about it. While in a bar recently, I surveyed seven people on this subject and asked what they thought of the idea and option. Five out of the seven said that they would absolutely order a low-carb option of their drink. One woman said that low-carb is a lifestyle change for her and that she couldn't imagine eating and drinking any other way. Of course on the flip side, one man said, "Why would I order a low-carb beer? If I am going to drink a beer, I'll have the exact one I want." He said he would rather not drink beer if it were low-carb.

This brings us back to marketing and education. If you want this to sell, you have to have tasting campaigns, education materials about the principles of low-carb, and emphasize that it is a lifestyle, not a gimmick. This can work; it just has to be done properly.



Carb COUNTS in GRAMS

SPIRITS Bourbon O, Brandy O, Gin O, Rum O, Tequila O, Vodka O, Whiskey O

BEER Michelob Light (12oz) 2.6, Coors Light (12oz) 5

DRINKS Bloody Mary (5oz) 5, Gin & Tonic (7oz) 16, Screwdriver (7oz) 18, Pina Colada (4.5oz) 4O

WINE Red (4oz) 2, White (4oz) .9, Dry white (5oz) 1.2, Dry red (5oz) 2.5, Low carb white (5oz) 1.6, Low carb red (5oz) 1.9

TOP LOW-CARB DRINK CHOICES starting with O grams and increasing: Vodka or Gin on the rocks (fresh lime added for flavor), Vodka and club soda, any spirit with diet soda or diet tonic, low carb wines, low carb or ultra light beers, Vodka and tomato juice.




SPIRIT LABELS DEFINED It's funny how a label can change the whole concept of a product. Marketing campaigns have gotten so strong for these low-carb alcohols because it is what consumers want to see. Spirits have always been low in carbohydrates. They are now just being labeled as low-carb for marketing purposes. For example, Bacardi Superior Rum is now using total carb count certification seal. In addition, beginning in the fall, the use of bottle labeling has been approved by the FDA. This is a great plus for Bacardi during this low-carb craze, because people who assume a light beer is a better choice, will see that there is actually less sugar (carbohydrates) in the rum. A Bacardi and Diet Coke cocktail is 66 calories, 0 carbs, 0 fat, based on a 1 ounce serving of Bacardi Superior Rum and 6 ounces of diet soda. More than 66 calories can be burned running a 10-minute mile or walking slowly for 28 minutes.

It's not spirits that add the carbs and calories - it's the mixers. A 12-ounce can of cola has 150 calories and 37.5 grams of carbohydrates. Orange juice contains 108 calories for an 8-ounce serving and 25.2 grams of carbohydrates. And lastly, a very common mixer, tonic contains 135 calories for a 12-ounce serving and 34 grams of carbohydrates. So what is this saying? Alcohol is getting blamed for the carb content when it has absolutely nothing to do with it. But marketers are smart and are using this as a great angle to sell more hard alcohol to consumers.

So, where will this take us? As a nutritionist, I feel that moderation is the key with most everything. It's worth pointing out that alcohol, in moderation, does provide some health benefits as well. I feel that if low-carb is good for an industry and is executed well, with proper marketing and education, then why not? It is really the responsibility of the user to make the decision of how he or she chooses to consume these beverages. In terms of being a sales person, restaurant and bar owner or liquor store owner, and as long as the smaller niche companies are not put out of business, then you should give the public what they want. And the current consensus is saying that low-carb is what people want. Cheers to that!


JESSICA KRANE, MS, RD received her Masters in Science and R.D. from Boston University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York. She does freelance writing for fitness and health magazines, websites and books on nutrition related topics. As a nutritionist, Jessica counsels patients on a range of health issues, including sports nutrition, obesity, weight loss, weight management, eating disorders, pre and postnatal nutrition, diabetes and coronary heart disease. She works in the Boston area and can be reached at Jessica@foodforthoughts.net.


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