It’s the Carbs

By Hyacinth Miles

I’m mesmerized by nutrition labeling which informs me that bottled water has no calories, no fat, no sodium, no carbohydrates, no dietary fiber, and no reason to have a nutritional label other than maybe the printer had a sale on zeros. Last year companies unleashed more than 21,000 new food products on us. While this includes reformulations of existing products, I figure if they can in good conscience claim their items are New!, Improved!, and have a Great New Taste! without feeling bad because that means the old versions were obviously lacking, then I say they count.

Of these, 633 were low-carb. While that sounds like a lot, it’s nothing compared to the 586 low-carb products that came out in the first quarter of the last year alone. That translates into six new items a day, one for every person in this country who’s not counting carbs, or a whopping 586 more chances for me to accidentally pick up the wrong thing in the supermarket. Right, like I need any more help.

It used to be that I could walk down the aisles of the grocery store and my main concern was trying to remember what was on the list I left at home while being careful to stay out of the way of women who are on a Shopping Mission From God. Then things got complicated. Where at one time I only had to decide which brand and size I wanted, suddenly I had to pay very close attention, spending five minutes carefully examining each item before I buy it. It’s not that I’m mesmerized by nutrition labeling which informs me that bottled water has no calories, no fat, no sodium, no carbohydrates, no dietary fiber, and no reason to have a nutritional label other than maybe the printer had a sale on zeros. No, the problem is I’m being confronted with way too many choices.

In the good old days, which is defined as any time before there were five kinds of Oreos to choose from, four of which are superfluous, if you needed mayonnaise you walked down the condiment aisle, found the brand you wanted, and went home safe in the knowledge that you could make tuna salad for the rest of your life because you couldn’t resist the incredibly low cost per ounce of the institutional size jar. Little did you realize it was named that because you should be in an institution for buying that much mayonnaise.

Now you not only need to know what brand you want, you have to decide whether you want regular, low fat, fat-free, cholesterol-free, caffeine-free, sugar-free, unscented, extra-strength, colored, flavored, or now, lo-carb. And the packages all look alike. Okay, except for a very subtle color change or the tiny notice on the back which says “This product may not contain any substances you’ve ever heard of or are capable of pronouncing unless you have a Ph.D. in organic chemistry.”

The problem is it’s easy to overlook these things, especially when my mind is preoccupied with wondering whether I’ll have enough money left over to buy a couple of gallons of gas without cashing in my 401(k). Right, like writers have 401(k)s. Our idea of planning for our retirement is to stand in front of the mirror and practice saying, “Would you like fries with that?” So between this and the brand proliferation, I invariably arrive home, unpack my groceries, and find that once again I’ve bought the Hi-Calcium Lo-fat Chunky Style Unsalted Reduced-Carb Saltines by accident. Where’s Jolt Cola when you really need it?

According to Time, 26 million Americans are currently on a low-carb diet, which may explain why the publishers are feverishly working on a reduced-carb version of the magazine. Right, as if the high-fluffy feature, low-news version we get now isn’t filling enough. That’s also why restaurants, from the fastest to the foofiest, are adding low-carb items to their menu. Sure it can be such a culinary brainstorm as trashing the bun and making you eat a hamburger wrapped in a piece of lettuce, something only a marketing person or a rabbit would consider to be a good idea. And yes, many of the low-carb menu items were low-carb before low-carb became the sugar-free of the New Millennium. But hey, if you can toss the name Atkins around and bring customers in without having to play records by a country musician, more power to you.

It won’t be long before carbs will be blamed for everything. After all, if there’s one thing we can always use, it’s a convenient scapegoat. So don’t be surprised if President Bush announces that the War in Iraq was actually started because the CIA suspected Saddam Hussein had been stockpiling Carbs of Mass Destruction (CMDs). Hey, apparently pasta and bread can be dangerous. The skyrocketing price of gas will turn out to be because oil refineries shifted production while they worked overtime to create low-carb gasoline. Uma and Ethan will confirm our suspicions that they broke up because of irreconcilable carb differences. And in the end, no one will pitch to Barry Bonds because they hear he’s loading up on all the carbs everyone else is avoiding. Hey, someone has to use them.

So dump the bread, forget the pasta, and blame everything on carbs. It won’t be long before someone decides they’re not so bad after all, so you might as well put them to good use while you can. n