When less is more

by David Philips
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New developments such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.’s healthy food initiative pose challenges for the processors of dairy-based products. While the D.G.A. suggest a holistic approach to nutrition and health, they also specifically recommend the consumption of 1% or fat-free products as opposed to those that may be described as reduced fat. Wal-Mart, on the other hand, has specifically highlighted products such as certain varieties of cheese, yogurt and flavored milk for sodium or sugar reduction.

The good news is the market is already populated with a variety of better-for-you products and ingredient technologies are available to put even more health-oriented products into the new product pipeline. A good example is sweetened yogurt, a product where consumers may consume nearly 30 grams of sugar per serving.

“Many adults consume yogurts with alternative sweeteners and think they are perfectly fine; similar to diet sodas,” said Kimberlee (K.J.) Burrington, a dairy ingredient applications researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research in Madison. “Greek yogurts have grown tremendously in the last five years, and most have less sugar in the fruit purees added to the yogurts.”

Stevia and agave syrup are among the sweeteners used in reduced-sugar products marketed as all-natural, Ms. Burrington said. Greek-style yogurt, which also offers around twice the protein of European-style yogurt, has grown in popularity and there are other indications consumers may embrace yogurt that is less sweet.

“The shopper who wants an all-natural product has plenty of options in both flavored/sweetened and unflavored products,” said Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations for The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y., and a subsidiary of the Paris-based company Groupe Danone. “These products may be slightly more tart than those products that have non-nutritive sweeteners. Greek yogurt continues to be a major engine of growth for the category and now represents more than 15% of the entire market.”

In its announcement, Wal-Mart said it is “uniquely positioned to make a difference by making food healthier and more affordable to everyone.” Specifically it plans to eliminate all “industrial trans fats” from its store brands, reduce added sugars by 10% in “key categories” of food products, and reduce sodium by 25%.

The retailer’s effort to reduce trans-fatty acids should have little effect on dairy, because the trace amounts of trans fats in most dairy-based products are not industrial hydrogenated fats, but are made up of beneficial CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids).

The sugar content of some flavored milks has been highlighted as a negative as efforts to reform school nutrition programs moved beyond efforts to simply restrict the sale of sugary soft drinks. Dairy processors have subsequently created reduced-calorie, lower-sugar flavored milks for schools, and Ms. Burrington believes there is interest among manufacturers in taking those kinds of reformulations to the retail marketplace.

Cheese manufacturers are facing a déjà vu moment. In the past they were challenged to reduce the amount of saturated fat in their products to improve their health profile. As a result of those fat reduction efforts more reduced-fat cheese products are being used on pizzas, in sandwiches and entrees, and the products taste better, said Mark Johnson, a senior scientist with the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research.

“On cheddar cheese and mozzarella, and in some of the other more common cheese types, you see one-third reduced or 25% reduced fat pretty commonly,” Mr. Johnson said. “They have improved them tremendously to the point where most customers would not even notice the difference.”

Today, the same thing is happening with sodium. Processors are using new technologies, including special cultures, to make it easier to reduce the sodium content of products but still hit the necessary flavor thresholds, Mr. Johnson said.

In the past, getting a “reduced” product to market was difficult, but it is hoped efforts by retailers such as Wal-Mart will make it easier to bring healthier products to market, Mr. Johnson said. The hesitancy in the marketplace is not as prevalent as it was when reduced-fat cheeses debuted, he said.

“We have seen 25% (sodium) reduced and they taste pretty good,” he said. “We have been working on 50% reductions with different techniques, and some are successful and some are not. On average there are about 660 mg (of sodium) for 100 grams of cheese that’s used in a school lunch. (Some reform programs) want to reduce that to 600 (mg), and I think we can achieve that very easily.”

Sargento Foods, Plymouth, Wis., offers a full line of reduced sodium shreds, slices and cheese sticks.

“Six varieties were rolled out in April 2010 and two in September 2010,” said Chip Schuman, vice-president of consumer products division marketing for Sargento. “Each contains 25% less sodium than their traditional counterparts, but taste as delicious.”

Salt is a necessary component of both the manufacture and the flavor profiles of many cheeses, said Dean Sommers, senior technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. Some styles of cheese, such as mozzarella or Swiss, do not rely on salt for flavor. But not all styles lend themselves to sodium reduction, so in some cases it may come down to portion control.

“It’s hard to imagine a reduced-sodium feta cheese or blue cheese,” Mr. Sommers said.

Portion control comes into play with yogurt as well. Dannon’s top selling line is Activia, which surpassed the company’s Light & Fit line a few years ago. Most Activia products come in a 4-oz serving size, characterized as a snack size by the company. The serving size is smaller than some Light & Fit products, which are available in 6-oz portions.

Typically, Activia provides 100 to 110 calories and less than 20 grams of sugar per serving. Some Activia Light flavors come in at 70 calories and 7 grams of sugar. Anything less than 120 calories is now the norm even for non-light products. Some specialty yogurts now come in at less than 50 calories per serving.

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