Any way you slice it, bread is a carbohydrate-counter's worst nightmare and, perhaps, fondest daydream.
One slice can eat up most of a day's allotment for low-carb dieters, meaning that some weighty decisionmaking goes into nibbling a piece of buttered toast.
Yet, even bread can succumb to the kind of dieters' demands that produced low-fat cookies and nonfat cheese. Thus, the birth of reduced-carbohydrate bread, an oxymoron on a par with jumbo shrimp.
As the Atkins diet surge continues, lower-carb bread is moving from an expensive specialty product to a $2 loaf that can be picked up in mainstream supermarkets.
The newest offering, Nature's Own Premium Wheat, promises half the carbohydrates of regular bread. The loaves from Flowers Bakeries arrive in stores across the Sun Belt this month.
"Reduced carbohydrate is here to stay," says Ty Deese, president of Flowers Baking Co. of Villa Rica, Ga. "This has been a very strong request."
It's not just bread. Sales of Michelob Ultra, a low-carb, low-calorie beer rolled out nationally in September, testify to the market's strength. In its first quarter in stores, the beer racked up $22.8-million in sales and ranked 18th in case volume, according to Information Resources Inc., which tracks food sales.
The Nature's Own reduced-carbohydrate bread has 60 calories a slice, the same as traditional varieties. Soy protein replaces wheat flour to trim the carb count but not the calorie count. Most nutritionists are skeptical that low-carbohydrate diets will lead to long-term weight loss, saying that eating fewer calories and exercising more is the best way to take off pounds. Dieters, convinced otherwise, have kept Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution at the top of bestseller lists for nearly six years.
"When we're talking about weight loss, it's total calories that count," says Jeff Hampl, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. "If they could make a bread that had 20 calories and had the same shape and texture and size, I'd say go for the low-calorie bread, but 60 calories is 60 calories. In the big scheme of things, eating this bread isn't going to help people lose weight."
Grain promoters also find the idea of low-carb loaf hard to swallow.
"If that's what consumers want, we can't begrudge (bakeries) from making the product," says Judi Adams, president of the Wheat Foods Council and a registered dietitian.
That doesn't mean Adams plans to try any.
"Bread is one of the great pleasures in life, and I'm certainly not going to mess with the formulas that I love," she says.
Ah, yes, taste. Testers found low-carb bread's acceptable, although the texture was a tad rubbery. To help with the sampling, a public relations firm working for Flowers sent along a jar of peanut butter.
It was reduced-fat peanut butter. For those keeping score, that means it contains more carbs than regular peanut butter.