A weighty issue

by Eric Schroeder
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Consumers concerned about weight management have been confronted in recent weeks with wide ranging evidence that supports the oft-heard phrase that "calories count." From diet studies to government action on menu labeling, calories have been decried as a harbinger of this nation’s obesity problem.

Late last month, a study published in the Feb. 26 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine grabbed headlines as it found that all diets — regardless of their emphasis on avoiding fat or carbohydrates — are successful as long as they reduce calorie intake and participants stick to them.

As part of the study, conducted between October 2004 and December 2007 at two sites: Harvard/Brigham and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center of the Louisiana State University System, Baton Rouge, researchers screened 1,638 participants and randomly assigned 811 to diets with 645 completing the study. In addition, participants were given personalized calorie goals, ranging from 1,200 to 2,400 calories per day, which reduced their overall caloric intake as compared with their daily energy requirement.

What the researchers found was that whether participants were on a low fat-average protein, low fat-high protein, high fat-average protein or high fat-high protein diet mattered little in each individual’s ultimate weight loss over the course of two years. In addition, researchers found participants who completed the study reduced their calories by 225 in daily energy intake at six months, a more modest reduction than the targeted 750 calories.

"These results show that, as long as people follow a heart-healthy, reduced-calorie diet, there is more than one nutritional approach to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight," said Dr. Elizabeth G. Nabel, M.D., director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. "This provides people who need to lose weight with the flexibility to choose an approach that they’re most likely to sustain — one that is most suited to their personal preferences and health needs."

A week after the N.E.J.M. study was published, the American Heart Association issued a statement encouraging people to follow healthy eating patterns to reduce heart disease risk, making special mention of the importance of cutting calories.

"Negative trends contributing to the obesity epidemic include eating too many calories — often by way of too many snacks or oversize restaurant food portions — and drinking too many sugary beverages," said Dr. Samuel S. Gidding, M.D., chair of the statement writing committee and director of Pediatric Cardiology at Nemours Cardiac Center of the Alfred I. Dupont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del.

Calling all calorie cutters

For consumers looking to cut calories in an effort to manage weight the portfolio of products to choose from is expanding. According to Nielsen Label Trends, a service of The Nielsen Co., the number of U.S. products making reduced calorie claims totaled $11.6 billion in sales in the 52 weeks ended Dec. 27, 2008. This was up 9% from a year ago and up 31% from four years ago. And while ranking fifth among health and wellness claims in terms of dollar sales, growth over the past year and over the past four years ranked third, trailing products making natural claims and those making fat claims.

Earlier this month, ACH Food Companies, Inc., Memphis, Tenn., launched Karo Lite Syrup, a product the company said makes it the first major brand of reduced-calorie syrup in the corn syrup section. The product features 33% fewer calories than the company’s clear original Karo syrup, according to ACH.

Beverages also appear to be an area where calorie reduction is front and center. Snapple, a brand of Plano, Texas-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Inc., earlier this month introduced its most significant makeover in its 37-year history. The makeover included a new formula with reduced calories, in some cases up to 20% fewer calories than previous versions of the beverages.

Tree Top, Inc., Selah, Wash., also had weight management in mind when it launched Tree Top trim, a product the company described as the first beverage to provide one full fruit serving coupled with weight management functionality. The beverage prominently promotes it has 50% fewer calories than other Tree Top beverages.

From an ingredient perspective, suppliers have a number of products in pipelines that ensure consumers looking to cut calories will have plenty of options.

SunOpta Inc., Brampton, Ont., has offered low-calorie oat fiber ingredients for several years. Cathy Peterson, group vice-president of applications and technical services at SunOpta, said the use of oat fiber alone or in combination with other fibers allows companies to cut calories in crackers by at least 25% and bread calories by 40%.

More recently, SunOpta launched a line of products called MultiFiber that provides a balance of insoluble and soluble fibers.

"The use of MultiFiber 1210 in baked goods such as cakes and muffins enable fat and calories to be reduced by at least 25% to 30%," Ms. Peterson said. Citing an example of a low-fat blueberry mini muffin formulated with MultiFiber 1210, Ms. Peterson said fat and sugar levels were reduced by 50% and 33%, respectively, which resulted in a 30% reduction in calories compared to the control formula.

"These ingredients can be used in a wide variety of food products, but baked goods are the most common products for the use of fiber to reduce calories," Ms. Peterson said.

Royal DSM n.v., Basel, Switzerland, is another company making headway with ingredients geared toward weight management and calorie reduction. This past August, the company introduced Fabuless DE — a powdered version of its Fabuless weight management ingredient.

"Fabuless is a unique formulation of natural palm oils and oat oils that has been scientifically proven, in several published clinical trials, to reduce feelings of hunger and help people manage calorie consumption," said Emily Tellers, product manager for Fabuless. "This results in longer term loss of fat mass and reduced weight regain following dieting."

According to DSM, Fabuless works by delaying digestion of palm oil droplets, due to the functionality of the oat galactolipid-coating. Because undigested fat arriving in the ileum (the latter part of the small intestine) triggers an ‘appetite satisfied’ signal to the brain, consumers are able to better manage their calorie intake and still feel satisfied.

Ms. Tellers said Fabuless was developed for instant powder applications such as soups, meal replacement shakes and beverages.

Cutting calories at the counter

The idea that calorie reduction may determine weight management success could not come at a better time for a number of states looking to gain support in their efforts to curb obesity.

New York City received a boost to its weight management efforts with the Feb. 17 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upholding the city’s regulation requiring some chain restaurants to post calories on menus and menu boards.

While the New York State Restaurant Association argued that the city violated the First Amendment by forcing its view on restaurant patrons that calories are the most important consideration on the menu, the U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed. In essence, the court backed both New York City’s observations, as well as those of The Keystone Center, suggesting the obesity epidemic is mainly due to excess calorie consumption, often resulting from meals eaten away from home. The Keystone Center is a non-profit organization headquartered in Keystone, Colo., that is involved in various science-based policy issues, including several that center on the development and improvement of science-based strategies to help address the nation’s food and nutrition challenges.

While New York City was the first to pursue the menu action and is furthest along in implementation, similar regulations have passed in California, Philadelphia and parts of Washington state, and numerous cities are in the process of making calorie disclosure mandatory.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, March 17, 2009, starting on Page 35. Click here to search that archive.

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