KANSAS CITY — Mainstreaming of a high-fat, moderate-protein and low-carbohydrate diet started around 2018 after a number of celebrities endorsed this weight-loss plan known as the ketogenic diet, or simply keto. This eating regimen is one of many that today’s consumers follow, according to the International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) 2022 Food & Health Survey, which showed that the number of Americans following a diet or eating pattern in the past year jumped to 52%, up from 39% in 2021 and 38% in 2019. While the most common dietary lifestyles are clean eating (16%), mindful eating (14%), calorie counting (13%) and plant based (12%), keto (7%) is much stronger than most marketers imagined it would ever be four years ago.

“Honestly, no one thought it would last this long,” said Kimberlee Burrington, director training, education and technical development, American Dairy Products Institute, Elmhurst, Ill. “It was more niche than the Atkins diet or other low-carb diets.”

Today keto is more popular than vegetarianism (3%) and vegan (2%), according to the IFIC survey. It’s no wonder why so many new products position themselves as keto or keto-friendly. Just like vegetarian and vegan claims attract everyday consumers, the term keto on a package lures shoppers who are looking to cut back on carbohydrates, specifically added sugars. This is coming primarily from consumers under the age of 50, according to the IFIC survey.

It is important to differentiate between keto and keto-friendly, even though neither term is legally defined. Many keto dietary plans suggest a daily intake of fewer than 30 grams of net carbohydrates. Net carbohydrates, which is also not legally defined, refers to carbohydrates that the body digests and includes sugars naturally found in everything from fruit to milk, as well as caloric carbohydrates, such as wheat flour, oatmeal and other grains. To calculate the net carbs in a food, fiber and sugar alcohol content is subtracted from the total carbohydrate content.

The keto weight-loss regimen emphasizes a diet in which 70% of calories come from fat, 20% from protein, and 5% each from simple carbohydrates and non-starchy vegetables. Foods labeled as keto tend to have such a composition. By eating only foods with these nutrient ratios, consumers are assured of getting the fat they need to get thin.

Keto-friendly, on the other hand, is typically more of a low-carbohydrate food. It may be consumed if an individual is following a keto diet without fear of surpassing that maximum of 30 grams of net carbs per day.

To put this in perspective, one McDonald’s Big Mac sandwich contains 42 grams of net carbohydrates. It’s not allowed on a keto diet. Addin a small order of fries adds another 28 grams. And every ounce of a sugar-sweetened fountain drink contributes 3.5 grams of net carbs to the meal. If it’s a zero-calorie beverage, making it void of carbohydrates, that beverage is keto-friendly, but it won’t assist with putting the body into ketosis.

Ketosis is when the body burns fat instead of carbohydrates for energy. The liver converts fat into fatty acids and ketone bodies, with the latter traveling to the brain and fueling the body, the traditional role of glucose obtained from carbohydrates.

Burning ketones in place of glucose is associated with weight loss, reduced inflammation, sustained energy and more. Unlike other dietary lifestyles, the keto diet is not a long-term approach to eating since it does not provide the body with adequate, balanced nutrition.

To make keto and keto-friendly foods, you must eliminate most grains, fruits, sugars and starchy ingredients, which is likely the most challenging in bakery and snacks where flour and sugar have traditionally been dominant ingredients.

When removing such important functional ingredients, there’s a substitution of nutrients, with net carbohydrates being replaced by fat and protein. Many of these modifications take a toll on product quality, which is why ingredient selection is paramount in order to build back texture and mouthfeel, while delivering deliciousness and masking off notes.

Innovations from IFT FIRST

Exhibitors at IFT FIRST held July 10-13 in Chicago showcased a range of keto and keto-friendly prototypes in food categories that require more than a simple swap of sugar with a non-caloric sweetener. But those were plentiful, too. In fact, International Food Products Corp. (IFPC), Fenton, Mo., sampled a keto-friendly ketchup sweetened with allulose, erythritol, monk fruit and stevia.

Grain Processing Corp., Muscatine, Iowa, debuted a new resistant starch at this year’s expo and sampled it in keto-friendly brownie pops. The new corn-based resistant starch is an inherently gluten-free dietary fiber ingredient with minimal calories. It contains 85% dietary fiber with 0.31 grams of net carbohydrates per gram.

“When used in food formulations, it can boost the nutritional value by increasing fiber while contributing fewer calories than other carbohydrates, supporting both added-fiber and lower-calorie label claims,” said Jimmy Kent, senior vice president of sales. “It is particularly well-suited for use in pasta, tortilla and baked good formulations. It’s recognized as dietary fiber by the FDA and will be labeled as ‘food starch-modified.’”

With a bland flavor, low water-holding capacity and smooth mouthfeel, this resistant starch is easy to use in food and beverage formulations, potentially becoming invisible in finished products. While it contributes solids to formulations, it does not add viscosity and mixes readily with other ingredients.

The brownie pop relied on allulose, maltitol and erythritol for sweetness. One 29-gram pop contained 100 calories, 8 grams of fat, 2 grams of protein and 6 grams of net carbohydrates.

Desserts are often easier to reformulate to be keto-friendly, as the sweetness (from high-intensity sweeteners) and sweet flavors mask the off notes from fiber and protein. Yeast-leavened bread, which is reliant mostly on wheat flour, is much more challenging.

“The difficulty in formulating keto-friendly baked products is about carbohydrate reduction because many baked products are already higher in fat, such as cookies, brownies and cakes,” Ms. Burrington said. “Bread is more challenging to re-formulate to fit a keto diet because it is very high in carbohydrates, low in fat and fairly low in protein.”

Tanya Jeradechachai, vice president – ingredient solutions, MGP Ingredients Inc., Atchison, Kan., said, “In general, keto baking replaces wheat flour with low-carbohydrate sources and other functional ingredients.”

A label for a commercially available keto-friendly bread contains no flour, sugar or artificial sweetener, and no emulsifiers. It does contain significant amounts of wheat protein isolate, wheat gluten and modified wheat starch/fiber. As a result, the bread is higher in protein, higher in fiber, contains lower net carbs and lower caloric counts. Still, it’s lacking in fat content, which is why it’s keto-friendly and not full keto.

MGP Ingredients offers an RS4 resistant wheat starch (greater than 90% total dietary fiber on a dry basis) and several wheat protein isolates as part of its keto ingredient solutions line. The resistant wheat starch makes it possible to create yeast-leavened and chemically leavened baked foods, everything from bread to bagels and cakes to cookies.

“The largest component of wheat flour is starch, and it can be totally replaced by RS4 resistant wheat starch when formulating a keto-friendly product,” Ms. Jeradechachai said. “It functions similarly to wheat starch in baking but minimally contributes to the net-carb counts. When we use the wheat RS4 in baking, we also incorporate wheat proteins to impart viscoelastic properties. We have six wheat protein isolates that differ in their elasticity and extensibility properties and can provide clean label opportunities.

“Commercial bakers can create keto bread comparable to classic white bread with the use of alternative processing methods and ingredients. The high amount of wheat proteins in keto bread baking requires proper hydration and longer mix time to fully develop the gluten. The baker also needs to plan for additional time during the fermentation process because of the lack of sugar or other nutrients required by the yeast to leaven the dough. And finally, it is critical to monitor the correlation between oven conditions (timing/temperature) and microbial inactivation, crumb set and color formation using thermal profiling in order to manufacture a more consistent and desirable product.”

Food scientists in the MGP Technical Center created a keto-friendly pizza crust. Wheat protein isolate and RS4 resistant wheat starch were combined to replace all the flour in the recipe. The finished product, at a 55-gram serving size, had net carbs of only 2 grams. Protein level measured at 9 grams.

“Not only was the pizza crust keto-friendly as a lower-carb food, production was straightforward because the ingredient properties allowed the analog flour to function similarly to normal wheat flour,” Ms. Jeradechachai said.

At the IFT FIRST expo, Ardent Mills, Denver, sampled its keto-friendly flour blend in cheese crackers. The non-GMO, dairy-free, nut-free, vegan and no-added-sugar system debuted in 2021. It is a blend of grains and dietary fibers and contains gluten, which allows bakers to use it on current equipment without any changes. It is available in white (all-purpose) and specialized flour blends for a broad range of bread and baked food applications, including pizza crust.

The cheese crackers were made with simple ingredients. Cheddar cheese was the first ingredient, followed by the flour blend, butter, water and salt.

The nutrition profile makes it a true keto product, with one serving containing 140 calories, 11 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein and no net carbs. The total carbohydrate content is 9 grams.

This prototype showed how dairy, namely protein powders and high-fat dairy ingredients like cheese and butter, assist with contributing fat and protein to the formulation with little to no carbs. In order to achieve a high-fat, moderate-protein profile, formulators also may include coconut or palm kernel oil, as well as plant proteins. To achieve a dairy-free keto label, a plant protein blend may be used.

Dairy fat, coconut oil and palm kernel oil are all concentrated sources of medium-chain triglycerides, which are saturated fats with molecular characteristics that allow them to behave differently inside the body compared to other fats. The one big difference is that they bypass traditional digestion and become an instant energy source following consumption. In other words, the body starts to burn it faster than other fats.

Eggs, too, are a source of fat and protein, and often used in dairy-free formulations. At IFT FIRST, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, NY, showcased its flavor systems in an almond flour- and egg-based microwavable brownie mix sweetened with erythritol and sucralose. To boost the fat content to keto-attractive levels, a commercial sprayed coconut oil system was added to the mix. A 40-gram serving contained 180 calories, 15 grams of fat, 7 grams of protein and 5 grams of net carbs.