Food PR professionals are taking sides in the heated battle between proponents of a low-carb lifestyle and companies whose products contain carbs."Carbohydrate" has become a magic word in food PR. The popularity of the Atkins diet and similar programs that advocate reducing carbohydrate intake has prompted a virtual PR war of words between proponents of the low-carb lifestyle and makers of products which naturally contain carbohydrates who are seeing their sales shrink. "When companies cast aside science and public interest and do everything they can to confuse the public, that raises serious issues," says Richard Rothstein, VP of corporate communications with Atkins Nutritionals in New York City. "I'm proud to be on the right side of this. How in the world does a PR person today continue to promote products that are full of unbelievable amounts of sugar to children?" Trade groups for bread makers, orange juice producers, and pasta makers all have vowed to use PR to tell consumers why their products make sense in a normal diet. The National Bread Leadership Council has stepped up pro-bread PR. The council wants to "change the dialogue about carbohydrates," Patrick Davis, whose firm, Patrick Davis Communications, works for the council, told PRWeek in a previous interview. The Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a Boston group that promotes the Mediterranean diet, earlier this year held a conference in Rome to formulate ways to answer the low-carb challenge to pasta and bread sales. Pasta maker Barilla was one sponsor of the event. The trust now is organizing seminars for doctors around the US to talk about "how carbohydrates fit into diet," says Chris Speed, manager of food and nutrition strategies at Oldways. Speed hopes to hold 12 to 15 such seminars over the next 12 months. While noting that "we don't say that Atkins is bad or Atkins is terrible," Speed does feel his PR efforts are competing for doctors' and their patients' attention. His goal for the conferences is to get doctors to reconsider telling patients the Atkins diet is right for them. "If we are to get our message out as well as [the low-carb advocates] have, we have to match their marketing prowess," he says. Doctors are key influencers on patients who ask them what they think of diets like Atkins, Speed explains. He also points to the Whole Grains Council, which held its first meeting last year, as another group taking on the low-carb forces by emphasizing the importance of whole grains in a balanced diet. Jumping on the trend While groups like Oldways and the bread council formulate their PR plans, major food and beverage firms are rushing out products with low-carb labels on them, worried that they might be missing a major marketing opportunity. But they're hedging their bets in case the low-carb craze cools. PR for products such as low-carb breads from Sara Lee and a low-carb beer from Coors talk about taste, not carb counts, in their messaging. "With Sara Lee bread, we definitely don't believe in introducing fad products," says Matt Hall, VP of communications with Sara Lee Bakery Group in St. Louis. Late last December, Sara Lee introduced Sara Lee Delightful white and wheat breads, with fewer carbs and calories than comparable existing Sara Lee offerings. The products noted their carb and calorie counts on packaging, but PR emphasized taste, Hall says. "The consumers who are buying our products are definitely mainstream," he adds. And there seems to be a lot of them. Within eight weeks of its introduction, the new wheat bread became the 12th biggest seller among branded breads, while the white offering became the 18th best seller in supermarkets. The new products are the best sellers among 40 bread brands that Sara Lee markets, Hall points out. The cacophony of PR about carbs has grown so loud that some worry the food and beverage industries could be setting themselves up for a public backlash similar to what happened when food companies rushed out low-fat products based on a sense that they were what diet-conscious shoppers wanted. Consumers bought low-fat items thinking they would help them drop pounds, but when that did not occur - likely because people were eating too many such products - consumers turned away from the approach. "I think there's the potential for that backlash" in low-carb product marketing, Hall says. Some think the answer is for regulators to define what low-carb means. Bill Layden, EVP and director of Edelman's food and nutrition practice, says unless labeling standards are established, consumers could become disenchanted with products calling themselves low-carb or reduced carbs. "If we oversimplify messages about carbohydrates, we may undermine it," he says. "I think there is a real need for better labeling." The stakes are major in the carb confrontation. A survey from Opinion Dynamics, a research company that does polling for Fox News, found 11% of Americans - 24 million people - are now on low-carb diets. Another study by Mintel, which does research on product introductions, found that more than half of Americans have either tried the Atkins diet, are on it, are cutting carb intake, or are thinking about doing it. But even in the world of consumer opinion research, there are disagreements about low-carbs. Technomic, a Chicago food-service consulting firm, says it surveyed people who eat out and found carbohydrates rank behind several other issues on a list of consumer concerns. "Consumers are most concerned about their intake of total fat, saturated fat, calories, and sugar in food-service settings," reads the release Technomic put out February 17 about its survey. Technomic estimates that 7% of the population is on a low-carb diet, not the 11% Opinion Dynamics said. The industry's response Food industry reaction to people's interest in Atkins and similar low-carb diets, such as South Beach, has been typical for an established industry, contends Ed Cafasso, SVP with Morrissey & Co., the Boston PR firm for Opinion Dynamics. "The first reaction of any established product is to try to defend its core products," he says. At the same time, firms are rolling out low-carb offerings as alternatives. "The best strategy that anyone in the industry can offer right now is to offer choice. I think there is a golden opportunity to establish trust with consumers, but any company that's caught trying to bamboozle consumers is going to pay." Emily Carlton, a PR specialist with Hilary Kaye Associates in Tustin, CA, represents a bread-store franchise that, rather than attack low-carb diets, has begun talking about the benefits of whole-grain, high-fiber breads. The client, House of Bread, has "decided to focus more on educating people on what kinds of bread are good when you're trying to lose weight," Carlton says. Signage in the chain's 12 locations in states such as California, Nevada, and Michigan discusses the nutrients a person needs and the need for a balanced diet. Amy Barr, a principal with Marr Barr Communications in Longmont, CO, works with client Rudi's Organic Bakery to promote both high- and low-carb offerings. She says the products appeal to different people, so messaging can concentrate on benefits for those groups rather than on attacking one diet or another. A nutritionist, Barr said she thinks that the low-carb trend is peaking. "Anybody who is bringing out low-carb now, they've missed the bubble," she says. Rothstein bristles at such talk. He sees a great deal of misinterpretation of the Atkins approach from detractors and notes most of his PR activity is devoted to educational initiatives explaining what Atkins really is. "As a company, we are doing a lot to communicate and continually educate on the right way to control your carbs," he says. "Unless you follow a legitimate carb program, low-carb products may not be for you." Rothstein also laments the efforts others in the food business are putting into attacking Atkins and similar diets. "We really all have a common enemy," namely the nation's obesity epidemic, he notes. "The old way has failed the American people." The question now is whether the PR being done on both sides of the issue will succeed in helping consumers make informed choices or cause consumer backlash by over-promising or under-delivering expected benefits from low-carb products.