It's dismaying when, as you're writing about someone, that person dies. Dr. Robert Atkins, 72, the most successful diet guru in the known universe, unexpectedly expired a few weeks ago. His legions of followers breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn't been felled by a massive coronary; instead, he fell down, hit his head, and never recovered.
Speaking of not recovering, I have friends who are on the Atkins diet. If you are one of the five Americans unfamiliar with Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution—sales of the book, first published in 1972 and updated 20 years later, have exceeded 10 million copies—you should know what it sets forth. According to Atkins, our excessive consumption of carbohydrates causes our bodies to produce more insulin than we need, raising our blood-sugar levels and making it impossible for us to lose weight; only by severely limiting our intake of carbohydrates can we reverse the course. We are allowed from very little to no bread, pasta, flour, sugar, grains, and fruits. Instead, proteins and fats are our new best friends. Steak, bacon-wrapped steak, bacon-and-cheese-wrapped steak? Go for it, caveman.
Whether or not you buy its science—an article by Gary Taubes in the New York Times Magazine last summer called "What If It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?" suggested there was more truth in Atkins' plan than food-pyramid pushers had given the doctor credit for—you cannot ignore its effects. If you eliminate a vast number of items from your "things I eat" list, you're bound to lose weight. I dropped a whopping six and a half pounds during a one-week test of Atkins. That was neat, but I still don't like diets, and I especially didn't like this one. How is it OK to eat steak and eggs dipped in butter but not an orange? Why is it acceptable to consume a whole leg of lamb but not a banana?
Fear of fruit is not the most bizarre part of the Atkins phenomenon. The real puzzler is the horde of carbohydrate-substitute foods creeping out of the laboratories. As a study commissioned by the market-research firm Productscan Online and reported by ABC News discovered recently, in the past two and a half years more than 816 products making low- or no-carb claims were introduced in the United States. They cost a lot more, too: A pound of low-carb pasta is approximately five times more expensive than its starchy alternative. The people who give up carbs seem willing to do anything to eat toast without actually eating it.
It is unfair to test low-carb foods against their "regular" counterparts. That is like comparing Jason Biggs with Vin Diesel. A carb-starved person will overlook important inadequacies in taste in order to eat breadlike things while still slouching toward skinniness. My goal was to determine whether any of the products was remotely tasty, and to what level of desperation one would have to sink into before eating it.
Ersatz chocolate is sweetened with one of two things (sometimes both): maltitol, a sugar substitute that is absorbed very slowly into the human body, so that part of what is ingested reaches the large intestine, where metabolism yields fewer calories; and Splenda, another artificial sweetener, this one made from sucralose, a calorie-free chemical that contains sugar but is not absorbed by the body. (For Slate's take on artificial sweeteners, click here.) Instead of regular flour, low-carb bread is loaded with fibrous density courtesy of soy flour, soy protein, and wheat fiber. Low-carb beer, according to Ray Daniels, a longtime home brewer, beer-writer, and the organizer of Chicago's Real Ale Festival, is made by utilizing enzymes such as pullulanase. These enzymes are added to beer during its mash stage, and they break down starches, reducing residual carbohydrates in the brew. This is exactly how "lite" beers are made, too, and in truth there is very little difference between the two.
Bread, Pasta, Muffins Product: Atkins Penne Rigate pasta Key ingredients: defatted soy flour, soy protein isolate, wheat gluten Net carbohydrates: 6 grams per 2-ounce serving ("net carbohydrates" is an Atkins trade term, referring to the carbohydrates a food has after its digestible fiber content is subtracted) Calories per serving: 230 Cost: $4.99 per pound Taste: Uncooked, this looked like normal whole-wheat pasta. I made a nice, garlicky marinara for it. I should have thrown the sauce away for the good it did. Cooked, the pasta had otherworldly textural problems; each piece seemed to crumble the second you put it into your mouth, and yet, chew as you might, it would not disappear. Level of desperation: I would not eat this again unless I had lost some of the brain cells governing my memory due to carbohydrate deficiency.
Product: Darielle Penne Rigate pasta
Key ingredients: defatted soy flour, pasteurized egg white, rice flour
Net carbohydrates: 10 grams per serving
Calories per serving: 160
Cost: about $3.79 per pound
Taste: This tasted a little better but still too much as I imagine wet IKEA furniture would.
Level of desperation: If my only choice were this or Atkins-brand pasta, I'd pick this one. And then pray for a Good Humor truck to run over me.
Product: Controlled Carb Gourmet Fiber Rich Bread
Key ingredients: whole-wheat flour, rye flour, wheat bran
Net carbohydrates: 3 grams
Calories per serving: 45
Cost: about $5.99 per loaf
Taste: Eureka! Some tasty Atkins-friendly food—and bread, at that. Slices of this bread are very small—about three inches square—and very thin. But though its texture was a tad cardboardlike, it boasts such ingredients as "spices" and "salt" and made for fine eating. If not exactly the kind of bread that screams, "Use me for French toast," then at least the kind made for absentminded dunks into coffee. It was also put to use repeatedly for making some excellent, Atkins-friendly grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Level of desperation: I'd eat this bread again with little to no provocation. Full-carb packaged brands have basically nothing on it but size. Ditto the Controlled Carb bagels, which were no worse than the grocery store staple Lender's.
Product: Atkins Country White Bread
Key ingredients: water, wheat protein, enriched wheat flour
Net carbohydrates: 3 grams
Calories per serving: 70
Cost: about $5 per loaf
Taste: Whether you toast these slices (also small) or not, or spread them with giant pats of butter (allowed by Atkins) or not, they are the blandest and chewiest food I have ever tasted. I timed my husband while he ate one three-inch piece of celery, the most fibrous food I know; I then timed him while he ate one piece of this toast. He chewed normally, taking a new bite only after he had swallowed the previous one. It took two minutes and 16 and a half seconds for him to eat the celery. It took two minutes and six seconds for him to eat the toast. It took two days for me to be forgiven.
Level of desperation: If I developed a hankering for particleboard, I'd sate it with this. Ditto the fake bagels, also made under the Atkins brand.
Product: Controlled Carb Gourmet Banana Muffin
Key ingredients: water, canola oil, egg whites, maltitol
Net carbohydrates: 1.5 grams
Cost: about $7.99 for four muffins
Taste: Sticky business, this muffin. It sticks to its cellophane, to your fingers, to a napkin. And because its makers hide the banana (it is but the 16th of 18 ingredients), eating it is a pretty empty experience.
Level of desperation: I would not seek out this food. I would hide if it looked for me. It's a shame, though, because we've seen that low-carb baked goods can taste good.
Product: Atkins Endulge Chocolate Candy Bar
Key ingredients: maltitol, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter
Net carbohydrates: 2 grams
Cost: about $1.49 per bar
Taste: The great doctor scores. The chocolate bar is waxy and sweet and good; although it's smaller and more expensive than other candy bars, I defy anyone to choose, in a blind taste test, which is Endulge and which is Hershey's. If you love ultradark and rich chocolate, Endulge is not for you. If you can slum with a Nestle's once in a while, you'll be able to ignore its only drawbacks: a faintly grainy texture and slightly bitter aftertaste.
Level of desperation: If no one were watching me at the grocery store, I would buy one. Actually, I did buy one—I wanted some chocolate, and I didn't want to feel bad about eating it, which is exactly the point of this entire industry of products. Ditto the chocolate "crunch" version.
Product: Carb Not Beanit Butter
Key ingredients: roasted organic soybeans, naturally pressed soybean oil, soy concentrate
Net carbohydrates: 5 grams per 2-tablespoon serving
Cost: about $5.99 per jar
Taste: If you like homemade peanut butter, freshly ground with naturally sweet flavor, you will be excited by the look of this product. If you like things that taste good, you will not be enthused. Beanit butter is extremely grainy and not particularly sweet.
Level of desperation: If you find supermarket and even natural peanut butters too sweet for you, as some people do, the Beanit Butter would be a spread of choice. I, however, am sticking with extra-crunchy Skippy.
Product: Carbolite Milk Chocolate Bar
Key ingredients: maltitol, cocoa butter, chocolate liquor
Net carbohydrates: 2 grams
Cost: about $2.98 per bar
Taste: Nice and creamy consistency here, and no grainy mouth feel. This is a typical waxy affair, no better and no worse than dime-store chocolate candies. It's eminently edible and would be good for those after-dinner, "I don't want dessert but I want a little something sweet" moments.
Level of desperation: If I could erase the word "Carbolite" from the packaging, I would be caught dead eating this.
Product: Michelob Ultra Low Carbohydrate Light Beer
Net carbohydrates: 2.6
Cost: about $7 per six-pack
Taste: Beer is a personal passion, especially good beer, especially Belgian beer. But there are times when I have hunkered down at a bar and ordered an Amstel Light because I worried about getting fat. For people who have those moments every time they look at a length of fettuccine, there is this beer, which has only 7.2 grams of carbohydrates fewer than an Amstel and only .6 grams less than a Miller Lite (on the market since 1974). Here is beer-flavored water with a really bad, bitter aftertaste. It contains about 35 percent less alcohol than other beers, too.
Level of desperation: I tried this beer in a number of ways, and the only way I could tolerate it was supercold and enhanced with a generous squirt of lemon. I'd have to be drunk to try it again any other way.
The Low Down
It must be said that Dr. Atkins went out like a champ, enjoying an uncommon predeath rise in popularity that many famous dead people, including Jesus, never got to experience. In his wake, he has given birth to an industry of low- and no-carb foods; clearly in its infancy, this business has spawned an inconsistent array of products. The good news, for subscribers to Atkins and maybe even for people who just want to monitor their carb intake, is that there are reasonable alternatives out there for some hallmark carb and sugar items—specifically bread and chocolate. As for me, if I wanted to Atkins-ize myself permanently (highly unlikely), I would simply eat pork-chop-wrapped duck breasts for every meal.