Across the aisle from the usual sugar-laden fare in 7-Eleven sits the latest confection to join the Atkins diet craze, a high-tech chocolate bar called Z-Carb. The Z is short for zero--as in "Zero Carbs, Zero Guilt, Zero Laxative Effect"--but we'll get to that last bit later. A Z-Carb is half the size of a Milky Way and twice as expensive and, if the history of dietary snack substitutes is any guide, ought to taste like a Post-it note, only blander. Not so. This is a no-sugar, no-carbohydrate treat that people can't get enough of. Since reaching 7-Eleven's shelves in June, the Z-Carb has sold almost as well as Nestle's venerable and heavily marketed Butterfinger candy bar.
Fatties, take note: the Z-Carb, made by boutique chocolatier HVC Lizard Chocolate in Norwalk, Conn., is part of the bulging cornucopia of ersatz sweets that is helping change the way millions of Americans snack. Catering to adherents of the high-protein, low-carbohydrate Atkins diet, foodmakers are filling out the $40 billion diet industry with alternative versions of their favorite sins, from marshmallows and margarita mix to biscotti and beer. And thanks to increasingly successful formulations of sugar substitutes, many members of this new generation of munchie killers are downright delicious. "They've come to my rescue," says Dallas resident Frank Edwards of Da Vinci Gourmet's sugar-free flavored syrups.
This new wave of no-guilt snacks has direct links to the efforts of Dr. Robert Atkins, whose get-thin-quick regimen became famous in the '70s for letting dieters have their steak and eat it too. Atkins controverted conventional dietary wisdom by asserting that eating fatty foods like bacon wasn't what caused weight gain. The real culprit, he said, was carbohydrates--the sugar and starch that are especially abundant in junk food. An estimated 25 million dieters have tried to follow his edict that if deprived of carbs as a source of energy, the body will burn fat. Although doctors and dietitians dismissed the Atkins plan for years--many blamed it for everything from bad breath to kidney damage--the fat-intensive diet was recently validated when short-term studies showed a lack of negative health effects.
Atkins died in April at age 72 after slipping on an icy sidewalk. But a resurgence in his diet's popularity has opened up the market for a slew of small, private health-food companies, which have been introducing Atkins-friendly prepackaged foods at a rate of almost three new products a day since January, according to Productscan, a marketing-intelligence firm in Naples, N.Y. Also tasting opportunity are food-and-beverage heavyweights like Anheuser-Busch, which launched a low-carb version of Michelob beer, and boxed-chocolate maker Russell Stover, which put out a line of low-carb candies. Says Gerry Morrison, president of Carbolite Foods in Evansville, Ind.: "This trend has expanded from die-hard low-carbers to a general population that is becoming much more carb-conscious." Indeed, in all-you-can-eat America, where 64% of the population is overweight, fully one-third of adults who say they are concerned about their girth have tried cutting carbs, reports Natural Marketing Institute, a consulting firm in Harleysville, Pa.