Carb Highs and Lows

Tips for how to sell, cross-merchandise and explain low-glycemic foods

Ever notice how important historical movements sound even more impressive when given a great name? The Age of Enlightenment. The Napoleonic Era. The Middle Ages. The Low-Carb Era.

Okay, so maybe the latter isn’t a major historical movement, but it isa significant time period when we look at the history of the natural products industry. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, customers looking for healthier food solutions (often for weight-loss) flooded natural grocers in search of lower-carb options. Diets like Atkins and South Beach appealed to consumers and many embraced low-carb eating habits wholeheartedly. At the height of the low-carb craze, NPD Group’s Dieting Monitor service found that 25% of consumers were on a diet and 17% had tried the Atkins diet (1).

Interest in the low-carbohydrate movement soared and has tapered off, but the impact is far from receding. In fact, consumers are primed and ready to understand carbohydrate foods to understand where they fall on the glycemic index.

Banks“One thing we know for sure is that Americans are becoming more health conscious and one of the trends is low-glycemic,” says Jennifer McGhee, vice president of marketing at Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., Melville, NY. “This term was relatively unheard of just a few years ago, but low-glycemic foods and beverages are establishing themselves as a viable niche in the mainstream U.S. market.”

Bolstering this statement is the prediction from marketing research firm Packaged Facts (in its Low Glycemic Index Foods and Beverages in the U.S. report) that low-glycemic index foods and beverages are now a $380-million market in the United States. Retailers, don’t hesitate to take advantage of this interest by explaining to customers how the low-glycemic index works, who are the best candidates for this diet and what are your store offerings.

Carb Check in Aisle Five
The basics behind the glycemic index are fairly straightforward. Different carbohydrates are absorbed and digested at different rates, which affects blood sugar levels and our bodies’ responses. Foods are given a glycemic index number based on how they increase blood sugar levels. For example:

  • Low- (55 or less) or medium- (56–69) glycemic foods cause a gradual rise in blood sugar and maintain increased energy levels for a longer time.
  • High- (70 or more) glycemic foods increase blood sugar fast, giving the body a short energy burst. The problem with high-glycemic foods is that the spike in blood sugar causes the body to release extra insulin to bring down the sugar levels. This makes us sluggish and ready to eat again thanks to hunger signals sent to the brain (2).

Many consumers are interested to learn these principles, says Carla Poirier, director of research and development at SoLo GI Nutrition Inc., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. “We have seen a continued increase in awareness of the glycemic index—what it is, what is has to offer, and the importance of incorporating low glycemic foods into the overall daily diet,” says Poirier. But, she warns, “With increased awareness, we are also seeing consumer skepticism and concerns about the validity of foods being marketed as or claiming to be low glycemic.”

Boulevards Hot ChocolateAs will be discussed later, proper labeling and low-glycemic validation is important. But education from retailers is key, too, to clarify misconceptions and dissuade any doubts. Poirier suggests “translating” a low-glycemic diet to customers as follows: “a long-term and sustainable way to eat, not another fad diet which will come and go.” She points out, “Many dietitians and health professionals promote and stand by the glycemic index as it is a sensible, long-term approach to eating. A low-glycemic lifestyle is based on sound eating principles, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, nuts, dairy sources and clinically-validated prepackaged foods.”

Retailers should take this suggestion to heart, as there is much confusion about these products. Says Lynn Gordon, president of French Meadow Bakery, Minneapolis, MN, “Doctors do the best they can with their time limitations to explain [this diet] to people, but consumers are still confused. They need more education that there are products out there for them.”
She notes that it’s especially important not to ignore your younger clients, as overweight and diabetic children can benefit from this knowledge—and they may be more receptive than you’d think. “They are eager and hungry to learn about their health conditions,” says Gordon.

For specific information about which foods fall into which glycemic categories, see sidebar “Examples of Low-, Medium- and High-Glycemic Foods.”

Cross-Marketing Suggestions
Nearly any shopper who walks through your door can benefit from a low-glycemic diet because it helps to positively manage blood sugar, balance energy levels and aid other important bodily processes. But perhaps more than any other food category, low-glycemic foods have the ability to be cross-marketed as a healthy lifestyle choice for those with various health conditions. Says McGhee, “Low-glycemic fare is making its mark with products that go one step beyond no- and low-sugar.”

Frey VineyardsAs McGhee notes, diabetes or metabolic syndrome care can be linked with a low-glycemic diet. “If an individual primarily eats low-glycemic, nutrient-dense foods that are naturally low in sugar, versus highly processed foods, an individual can avoid the dreaded spikes and crashes they get from refined-carbohydrate, high-sugar diets,” says McGhee. “Instead, they’ll discover steady and even energy throughout the day, and meet their weight loss and health goals.”

This year, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a review article of 37 studies that found a “low-glycemic-index diet was as effective in preventing diabetes and heart disease as diets high in whole grains and fiber. The reviewed studies also suggested that eating foods low on the glycemic scale could reduce the risk of gallbladder disease and breast cancer” (3).

According to Gordon, it is not only key for retailers to carry low-glycemic foods, but also low-glycemic foods that are made especially for diabetics. French Meadow offers bread (Healthy Hemp Bread and Men’s Bread) that is certified by the Glycemic Research Institute as “low glycemic for diabetics,” which means diabetics can have two slices per serving. Other competitor products are simply “diabetic friendly,” and suggest only one slice per serving for diabetics. “There’s a huge difference. It’s ground breaking…When consumers find out about this product, they’re astonished,” says Gordon. French Meadow also makes Fat Flush Tortillas, which are suitable for individuals following a low-glycemic diet.

Oasis BagsGordon also makes the point that people with Chron’s disease or other digestive disorders consider a low-glycemic diet.

Those looking to achieve weight loss may be a natural fit for this category. But, take care how you explain this connection to consumers. A low-glycemic diet could lead to weight loss (combined with exercise) because the foods often satisfy a person’s hunger better than most high-glycemic foods. And, they tend to be packed with healthy fats, proteins and fiber. But, experts agree it’s not a quick-fix for weight loss. And, even low-glycemic foods should be eaten in moderation.  For example, a chocolate bar has a lower-glycemic index than boiled carrots. So, foods should be chosen sensibly.

Nonetheless, a 2006 study conducted at the University of Sydney on 129 overweight young adults indicated that “lowering the glycemic index doubled fat loss” over a 12-week period. “Our findings suggest that dietary glycemic load, and not just overall energy intake influences weight loss and postprandial glycaemia (blood sugar levels after eating),” said Joanna McMillan-Price in a press statement. Even moderate reductions in glycemic load “appear to increase the rate of body fat loss, particularly in women” (4).

Athletes and those looking for extra energy also may want to consider eating a diet rich in low-glycemic foods. Again, the advantage is a slow, steady release of energy. “Not only do athletes require an adequate fuel supply during exercise, they also need to replenish adequately afterwards, and maintain a sound nutritional plan otherwise,” Poirier explains. Therefore, she notes, “A growing number of professional, collegiate and elite amateur athletes” are using prepackaged low-glycemic bars “for the benefits of long-term and sustained energy they provide.”

Examples of Low-, Medium- and High-Glycemic Foods

Carb Highs and LowsLow (55 or less)
• one cup of brown rice (55)
• one cup of white spaghetti, boiled 10–15
minutes (44)
• one large slice of pumpernickel bread (41)
• one cup of white spaghetti, boiled five
minutes (38)
• one apple (38)
• one cup of
bran cereal (38)
• one cup of
lentils (29)
• one ounce of
peanuts (14)

Carb Highs and LowsMedium (56–69)
• two teaspoons of sugar (68)
• one 6-inch pancake (67)
• one cup of white rice (64)

Carb Highs and LowsHigh (70 or more)
• one cup of cornflakes (81)
• three rice cakes (78)
• one doughnut (76)
• one russet potato (76)
• one slice of white bread (73)

Source: Linus Pauling Institute, University of Oregon,

This application for a low-glycemic diet isn’t just for athletes. Most consumers can benefit from the positive energy it provides. Many lead fast-paced lives and are tired of foods and drinks which give “instant energy gratification” and then a crash, “where the energy (and blood sugar) levels inevitably fall below their original level, leaving consumers feeling tired, hungry and less energetic,” says Poirier. “Consumers realize that low-glycemic foods provide energy for the long-term and will keep them energized (and satiated) far longer than high-glycemic, sugary, refined and caffeine-laden foods.”

The Next Steps
Products with low-glycemic labeling have been on store shelves for decades and over this time, we’ve seen some excellent products come to market in this category. But, there are still some areas for improvement.

Better Ingredients. First, Shawn Patrick House, president of Lancaster Trading House, Inc., Hempzels, Natalie’s Hemp Seed Nut-Less Butter (maker of Peanut Butter Filled Pretzel Nuggets and Natalie’s Hemp Seed Nut Butter) Lancaster, PA, says that some low-glycemic products contain sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners and other substandard ingredients. Though “more companies aren’t using fructose corn syrup in their recipes,” he feels that the complete “elimination of artificial sweeteners” would benefit this market segment.

Poirier agrees and notes, “These products do not provide real energy, as the carbohydrates which we need for energy, have been removed or replaced with sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners,” she explains. In addition, sugar alcohols have a bad wrap for causing intestinal discomfort (bloating, gas, etc.) because the sugar alcohols aren’t completely broken down and must be broken down by bacteria in the colon.

Solving this probably may be a matter of reinforcing that not all carbs are bad. “Consumers are being misled to believe that carbohydrates are bad; whereas we need to (re)educate that our bodies need carbohydrates to use as the primary source of energy. Without an adequate supply of carbohydrates to fuel the muscles and important bodily systems, consumers can be left feeling tired, lethargic and lacking energy,” she says.

Taste. Another area for growth may be taste, which is a huge determining factor in purchasing decisions. “Products that actually taste great, like our products, are very hard to come by,” notes McGhee of Atkins, which offers low-glycemic Advantage and Day Break bars and drinks.

Quick Tips for Eating a Low-Glycemic Diet

• Eat more whole grains, nonstarchy vegetables and nuts. Choose to eat a piece of fruit instead of fruit juice.
• Eat more beans and legumes. They’re packed with protein and are a source of slowly digested carbohydrates.
• Eat less white potatoes, white bread and white rice.
• Eat less sugary foods.

Retailers considering bringing in a new line may want to ask manufactures to see any double-blind, taste-test data about the food product. For example, Poirier says SoLo has independent consumer taste testing research suggesting that her company’s brand was preferred 88% over the leading energy bar and 72% over the leading nutrition bar. Products in the SoLo Gi line include SoLo Gi Low Glycemic Nutrition Bars (in Mint Mania, Peanut Power, Chocolate Charger, Berry Bliss and Lemon Lift).

Validation. It’s one thing to claim a product is low glycemic. It’s another for it to be validated as low glycemic. Though some natural food makers do have their products clinically validated by a reputable glycemic-index testing laboratory, says Poirier, many don’t. Retailers shouldn’t hesitate to ask manufacturers that are not clear on the labeling about their glycemic testing. And, share the information with shoppers. “This provides peace of mind and assurance to consumers that products are credible as they have been clinically tested as being low glycemic,” says Poirier.

McGhee feels the industry could take this one step further. “It would not be a bad idea to create a standard for a registered ‘low-glycemic’ logo/symbol that consumers can identify quickly on the packaging in the aisle they are shopping,” she says. This enhanced labeling would enable consumers to identify products that are truly low-glycemic.

The Glycemic Research Institute of Washington, D.C. is one leader on this front. The group offers various low-glycemic certifications to finished product manufacturers. All products undergo strict testing before they meet certification requirements. It even names a “Pet Food of the Year” that is low glycemic. Further information about the Glycemic Research Institute is available at WF


  1. “The NPD’s New Dieting Monitor Tracks America’s Dieting Habits,” press release, NPD Group, May 2004.
  2. Iowa State University Extension, Using the Glycemic Index to Compare Carbohydrates, November 2003.
  3. E. Conis, “Low-Glycemic Foods Make Their Way into the U.S. Market,” Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2008.
  4. University Of Sydney, “Low Glycemic Index Diet Best For Weight Loss And Cardiovascular Health,” press release (July 26, 2006).

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2008