Keto in focus, part 1: From hardcore keto dieters to the ‘carb-conscious’

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Ted Tieken: 'Zero sugar is where many people are at right now. But you can get a zero-sugar claim with tons of glycemic carbohydrates [which means the product is not keto-friendly]...' Picture credit: Keto and Co
Ted Tieken: 'Zero sugar is where many people are at right now. But you can get a zero-sugar claim with tons of glycemic carbohydrates [which means the product is not keto-friendly]...' Picture credit: Keto and Co

Related tags: keto, keto diet, ketogenic

The high-fat, moderate protein, ultra-low carb ketogenic diet has its devotees and detractors. But what kind of impact is it having on the CPG industry, how big is the addressable market for keto or keto-friendly products, and is this a fad or a lasting trend? For part one of our new series, we caught up with Keto and Co, which sells keto products online and in around 4,000 stores nationwide.

Right now, said founder and CEO Ted Tieken, who has been following a ketogenic diet since 2014 to manage chronic pain, manufacturers are targeting two groups of consumers.

The first are hardcore keto dieters: avid label readers who count carbs down to the decimal point and routinely test their blood to ensure they are in a state of ketosis (burning stored fat rather than carbs, releasing ketones in the process). The kind of shoppers who know that allulose​ counts as carbs on the Nutrition Facts panel, but it won’t spike your blood sugar, at a time when most consumers have never even heard of it.*

The second, significantly larger group, might be described as ‘carb-conscious,’ spanning everything from consumers that are watching their sugar intake to Type 2 diabetics, to Paleo or Atkins fans, to celiacs.

‘To make sure our products are truly keto, we have customers try them in the final stage of R&D, and measure their blood sugar’

As a strict follower of the diet himself, Tieken formulates all of his products with the first group (hardcore keto followers) in mind, and lists net carbs per serving prominently on the front of pack.

We use 30g net carbs per day as the guideline for staying keto," ​he told FoodNavigator-USA. "If a product has low enough net carbs to reasonably keep you below that limit over a full day of eating, we consider it to be keto friendly.

“This amounts to 1.5 grams of glycemic carbohydrates ​[net carbs – what you get after you subtract dietary fiber from total carbs] in 100 calories of the product, so if you were to eat this product and only this product for an entire day's worth of calories on a 2,000 calorie a day diet, you would hit right around that 30 grams of net carbs per day necessary to stay in nutritional ketosis.”

And then to “make sure our products are truly keto,” ​he added, “We have 10 of our customers try them in the final stage of R&D, measure their blood sugar, make sure they’re not spiking blood sugar, and then we periodically spot test after launch to make sure that nobody changed an ingredient grade on us to make the product less keto friendly."

‘You can get a zero-sugar claim with tons of glycemic carbohydrates'

However, the looser 'carb-conscious' market is obviously much bigger, he observed: “But what do you call it? There's not a trendy word, at least not yet, for that ‘much lower in glycemic carbohydrates, but not quite keto’ diet. I do think it's a major opportunity, and we're watching that space, and truth be told we're very likely to add to our offering in the future, a brand that serves that demographic as well.

“But right now, the nomenclature is one of the bigger hurdles, is it keto adjacent, keto-curious?

Zero sugar is where people are at right now. But you can have zero sugar and a ton of starch that turns into blood sugar, so you can get a zero-sugar claim with tons of glycemic carbohydrates ​[which is not keto-friendly at all]."

Keto certifications

As far as certifications go, he said, “There's only one that I personally trust, and that's ketogenic certified​,​ as they test products on people to ensure they won’t spike glucose or kick someone out of ketosis as part of their certification.

“There are certifications out there that are basically just paleo certifications, and they ban things like sucralose, which you can like or not, but there's nothing about the sucralose molecule that inhibits ketosis. Some also disallow corn, which doesn't make any sense,” ​argued Tieken, who uses soluble corn fiber​ – a prebiotic dietary fiber - in several products.

keto and co products

Launched in 2015, ​Cambridge, MA-based Keto and Co​ sells branded keto baking mixes and granola; a table-top sweetener combining erythritol, soluble corn fiber, inulin, monk fruit, and natural flavors under the Wondrose​ brand; and keto nutrition shakes under the Sated​ brand.   

‘Almost every retailer is looking at keto’

So how is Keto and Co doing?  

“When we started, keto was a niche and distributors were like, what's keto? So selling on the internet was our only option,” ​he said. “Fast forward a few years and the same distributors were begging us to work with them. Almost every retailer is looking at keto, all the way to Walmart and Target."

Asked how retailers are merchandising keto products, he said: "As a keto consumer, I would love to have a keto section​ [rather than having keto products embedded within categories] as I don't even walk down certain aisles in the grocery store anymore unless it's for my kids, so I don’t go down the bread and cereal aisle as there's nothing for me, so if somebody comes out with a new keto bread, I'm not even going to walk past it.”

The opportunity, he claimed, is significant and growing, although the pandemic has thrown things off a little. “So Omicron led to way fewer people doing diets this year than any other January that I've ever seen, so year over year, we're holding steady.”

The most challenging thing I deal with right now is salad dressing’

On a personal level, he said, “The most challenging thing I deal with right now is salad dressing. I’m almost eight years on keto now, so I know more or less what I can eat anywhere. It’s a lot of protein and veggies, and refined sugar hidden in salad dressing is one of my biggest remaining issues.”

*Tieken would love to see the FDA permit some non-glycemic carbs that are not officially categorized as dietary fibers, to have their own line on the Nutrition Facts panel, as for keto fans, what matters is being able to stay in a state of ketosis, he said. “It's hard to work within the FDA rules to communicate the true glycemic effect.”

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