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LIFE SCIENCES: NUTRITION

Mixed messages on carbs

Pasta's image problem shifts with marketing

Even the Boston Marathon is trying to kick the carbohydrate habit.

Race organizers used to stage a pre-race meal they called the ''Pasta Party" on the night before the event. But spaghetti has acquired a negative connotation as low-carbohydrate meal plans like the Atkins diet catch on, promising fast weight loss.

So this year, organizer Mickey Lawrence changed the name to the ''Pre-Race Dinner." She still served 3,000 pounds of pasta to rail-thin athletes who need the energy, but she hoped the new name would attract sponsors who fear consumers now associate eating pasta with being fat.

''We have to do what's right for the runner, but we also have to do what's right for the sponsor," said Lawrence, in charge of the event held at City Hall Plaza last night.

It's a confusing time for carbs. Casual dieters are shunning them for health and fitness reasons, while serious athletes still seek them out. The result is a mixed message. Big marketers have turned on a dime to offer low-carb products like Anheuser-Busch Inc.'s Michelob Ultra low-carb beer, promoted with photos of thin runners. But many marathoners remain huge carbohydrate fans. None of this is simple for foodmakers selling carbohydrate-heavy products, as they fumble for a message that cuts through the clutter.

Pasta's problems are apparent in the financial struggles of New World Pasta Co. of Harrisburg, Pa., owner of the Prince and Ronzoni brands. It ended its $200,000 annual contributions for the Boston Marathon dinner last year,citing slow sales.

On the other hand, a new company at last night's event was Perry's Ice Cream Co. of Akron, N.Y., which expected to hand out 7,000 three-ounce samples of its Carb Delite ice cream. It uses less sugar, cutting its carbohydrate count 75 percent to about 3 grams.

Robert Carlson, a Perry's manager, said the company decided to offer the line after noticing growth in other low-carbohydrate brands. ''It's a substantial portion of the American population now on low-carb," he said.

On Thursday evening at Khoury's State Spa in Somerville, about 50 members of the Somerville Road Runners dropped by for their club's annual pre-Marathon pasta party. Many drank regular beer, another big source of carbohydrates, and swore exercise was the only sure-fire weight-loss plan.

''If you want to lose weight, try running, and then you can eat as much pasta and drink as much beer as you want," said Aileen Mason, 34, of Andover, preparing for her fourth Boston Marathon in between bottles of Blue Moon beer (13.7 grams of carbohydrate a serving). ''I'm still a carb fiend," said Kyle Marchesseault, 26, still dressed to run after a four-mile jog earlier in the evening. ''If you run a lot, you need carbs," he said.

The problem is too many Americans are taking in as much fuel as a marathoner, without burning it off on the road. A Department of Agriculture study showed average daily caloric consumption rose 12 percent, or about 300 calories, from 1985 to 2000, with carbohydrates like refined grains and added sugars, accounting for two-thirds of the increase.

Over the same period, Americans grew dramatically heavier on average. The relationship between certain diets, exercise, and obesity is controversial, largely due to the work of Robert C. Atkins, a cardiologist who preached Americans should lose weight by reducing their carbohydrate intake and eating more protein, such as beef.

He died last year, but not before creating Atkins Nutritionals Inc. of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., which sells diet foods and has begun licensing its name to restaurant chains such as TGI Friday's.

One sign of Atkins' success is that major food conglomerates have blamed poor financial results, at least in part, on low-carb diets, including General Mills Inc. and Interstate Bakeries Corp. In Missouri, American Italian Pasta Co. said last week it expects to report net income of between $7.5 million to $7.8 million for the 13 weeks ended March 20, lower than its previous estimate of $8.9 million. A major cause was that retail consumption of dry pasta fell 7 percent during the period, the company said, citing AC Nielsen statistics.

Timothy S. Ramey, analyst at D.A. Davidson in Oregon, said the first quarter is a traditional dieting season, when consumers are trying to shed pounds from the holidays. Also, new diets are easier to follow than regular exercise, the reason marathoners are able to eat so much pasta.

''The problem is a lot of us aggressively load up on pasta and then aggressive work the channel-changer," Ramey said.

Stephanie Brendel, brand manager at the PowerBar Inc. unit of Nestle SA, says the company's low-carb energy bars are selling as fast as they can make them, such as one known as ProteinPlus Carb Select. But elite athletes usually want more carbohydrates, not less.

When Powerbar's nutritionist showed a new energy drink to a group of mountain-bike racers last week at an event in Monterey, Calif., Brendel said, ''they asked us, can you take the carbs you took out of the Carb Select products, and put them in ours?"

Ross Kerber can be reached at kerber@globe.com.

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