Russell Stover selling low-carb chocolates

By Amy Shafer  I  Associated Press - 6/20/03

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A guy who runs a candy factory cutting back on carbohydrates?

It happened, says Thomas S. Ward, president and chief operating officer of Russell Stover Candies Inc. Ward, who runs Russell Stover with his brother, Scott, calls himself a "low-carb person" who lost 25 pounds on a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates.

Now, his company is touting a line of low-carb candies that include chocolate-covered mint patties, toffee squares and peanut butter cups.

"We don't want our regular consumers not to be able to buy Russell Stover if they go on a low-carb diet," said Thomas Ward.

Kansas City-based Russell Stover, the largest seller of boxed chocolates in the country, has joined a growing trend of companies targeting people who follow low-carb regimens, such as the Atkins diet. Last fall, St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewer, introduced its low-carb beer, Michelob Ultra.

For now, Russell Stover is selling its low-carb candies in candy bar-sized packages that cost about $1 each and contain two chocolatey pieces. Ward, however, said that eventually his company will sell low-carb boxed chocolates and other candies.

"The big thing is that you have to have something that tastes good," Ward said.

Matt Wiant, senior vice president for marketing at Atkins Nutritionals Inc., which makes its own low-carb products, including chocolates, said it traditionally has been difficult for people to find snack foods that fit into the Atkins diet plan.

"We think it's great that the consumers have alternatives now," Wiant said, but added that Atkins urges people to eat their foods because others might contain hidden carbohydrates.

Some nutrition experts warn that the low-carb candies aren't necessarily any healthier than the originals. The fat and calorie contents are similar to regular chocolates. And sugar is substituted with sugar alcohols, such as maltitol, which aren't digestible and can cause gastrointestinal problems.

"This is a huge mistake that we're making by picking on one macronutrient and saying that's a problem," said Wahida Karmally, nutrition director at the Irving Center for Clinical Research at Columbia University and a spokeswoman for the American Diatetic Association. "The bottom line is, it's the calories."

She also pointed out that hydrogenated fat, which is in some of the candies, increases bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol.

Brie Turner-McGrievy, a registered dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group favoring a vegetarian, lowfat diet, said low-carb products just encourage people to eat more foods that are bad for them.

Low-carb diets already encourage people to eat high-fat foods, such as bacon, eggs and steak, she said. "And now we're saying you can eat candy and beer too."

Russell Stover, which owns Whitman's Candies and Pangburn's Chocolate, already made sugar free products targeted at diabetics. The low-carb products are similar, Ward said, but are targeted specifically at people watching their carbohydrate intake.

On the front of each package, Russell Stover lists the "net effective carbs" in each piece of candy - the total carbs minus the carbohydrates that come from fiber and sugar alcohols.

The mint patties, for example, have 18.6 grams of carbohydrates, but just 0.3 net effective carbs, according to information on the package. A serving of pecan delights, which are peanuts and caramel covered in chocolate, has 15.9 grams of carbohydrates, but just 2.4 net effective carbs.

Russell Stover began shipping the low-carb candies in early April, and they have slowly made their way to stores across the country. Ward said that, so far, low-carb chocolates are selling well, although the company, which is privately owned, would not provide specific figures.

Ward said that just like with any candy, people shouldn't consume large quantities of low-carb chocolate in one sitting.

"It's a nice snack alternative," he said.