The Politics of Obesity

This year's report on the obesity crisis focuses on what's driving processors in their efforts to make the next generation of food and drink products designed to help weight-management.

By Jennifer LeClaire

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Food processors respond to the need for lower fat, lower sugar foods with innovative ingredients and methods in the ongoing battle against obesity and diabetes.

Health experts have long accused food processors of stocking grocery store shelves with sugary, high-fat, low-nutrient products with little regard for the wellbeing of consumers. Processors have answered these critics with campaigns that cook up low-fat, sugar-free, nutrient-rich products that leave consumers with more choices.

Still, obesity and diabetes are reaching epidemic proportions. More than 30 percent of Americans are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta (CDC). Obesity now equals smoking as the leading preventable cause of disease and death. What's more, the CDC estimates 20.8 million people have diabetes, representing 7 percent of the U.S. population, a whopping 40-percent increase in the past decade.

Despite these stark realities, healthfulness is not the only reason why consumers want to lose weight, according to Dan Best, president of Best Advantage, a Northbrook, Ill. food research and marketing consulting firm. Cosmetic reasons are also a major driver behind the demand for healthier processed foods, he explains, and these consumers expect something different from health-conscious processed foods.

"Part of the consuming population recognizes they have a health problem they need to address," Best says. "But I believe a larger portion wants to lose weight so they can look good on the beach. That's an entirely different consumer -- one who focuses more on the taste, convenience and sense of fullness than actual nutritional content."

Trifecta

Health, flavor and convenience are three major factors on the minds of grocery store-shopping consumers, according to the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Assn. (www.iddba.org), Madison, Wis. That revelation is leading food processors to tout labels that communicate the health benefits of products, add flavor and offer travel-friendly packaging, pre-blended spices and pre-marinated meats and fish. Indeed, it has caused a sea change in the industry that is well underway.

Whether the consumer motives are health concerns or just a desire to look attractive in a bikini, products that address obesity and weight management offer alternatives to sugar, fat and salt while leaving consumers smacking their lips with a feeling of fullness that makes them happy to pay a little more for these new breed of processed foods.

Two signature ingredients by InterHealth Nutraceuticals Inc. (www.interhealthusa.com) are designed to handle the one-two punch of obesity and diabetes management: Super CitriMax and ChromeMate, are both known for their weight-management and cardiovascular health benefits. But ChromeMate has been shown to benefit persons with diabetes or prediabetes.

"Super CitriMax is clinically proven to suppress appetite, burn fat and inhibit the conversion of carbohydrates into fat without affecting the central nervous system," says Amy Weitz, director of communications for InterHealth. "It's a hydroxycitric acid (HCA) compound bound to both calcium and potassium. The HCA is extracted from the south Asian fruit Garcinia cambogia, which has been used for centuries to make food more 'filling.' Super CitriMax is not meant to serve as a 'magic pill,' but is meant to be used as part of a diet and exercise regimen to achieve results."

ChromeMate is a niacin-bound, highly bioavailable form of chromium that helps maintain normal body weight. The metal has also shown effectiveness in helping to maintain normal insulin function and healthy blood sugar levels. In addition, both Super CitriMax and ChromeMate have been shown at the genetic level to promote the burning of brown fat -- the toughest kind of fat to lose.

Both ingredients are GRAS-affirmed, highly soluble and virtually tasteless, odorless and colorless in solution. This makes them suited for inclusion in a wide variety of foods and beverages, including water, fruit drinks, dairy products, snacks and even sachets. The ingredients can be found in products such as Fuze Slenderize, by Fuze Beverages (www.fuzebev.com), Englewood Cliffs, N.J.; Norwalk, Ct.-based South Beach Beverage Co.'s (www.sobelean.com) SoBe Lean; and Skinny Water, by Skinny Nutrtional Corp. (www.skinnywater.com), Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

The sugar equation

Some health experts blame ever-increasing sugar consumption for our nation's growing overweight population. It's true that the average American consumes 32 teaspoons of sugar a day, according to the USDA, compared to only about 10 teaspoonfuls in 1977. That's about 20 percent of the daily recommended caloric intake in sugar alone.

Beyond tooth decay and obesity, researchers have linked sugar to pancreatic cancer, kidney damage, and even cardiovascular disease, among other maladies. However, sugar is of special interest to patients with diabetes. Diabetes is a condition in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin, a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other foods into energy.

Food processors have responded with a gamut of diabetes management brands, such as ExtendBar, Fifty/50 Foods and Glucerna from Abbott Nutrition (www.glucerna.com), Columbus, Ohio. The company recently expanded and improved its line of Glucerna products, which includes cereal, shakes and mini-snack bars. Kathy West, R.D., a senior nutrition scientist for the company, says the products are "designed to spike the consumer's taste buds, not their blood sugar." Abbott uses two key ingredients: blends of slow-digesting carbohydrates shown clinically to help manage blood-sugar spikes, and the trace mineral chromium picolinate that helps the body's own insulin work more effectively.

"We design products to help people with blood sugar management, but we are also concerned about nutrition and portion control," West says. Glucerna's Mini-Snack bars were developed, for example, as an 80-calorie snack to help manage sugar. And Glucerna Shakes are formulated with ingredients for cardiovascular health with a fat blend that helps fight high cholesterol and triglycerides, West explains, because heart management goes hand in hand with weight and diabetes management. Both demand the proper balance between carbohydrates, fat and protein.

The alternative sweetener market also tackles weight and diabetes management, and the market is getting more crowded each year. Sweet-n-Low and Equal made room for Splenda, but now all-natural options are emerging. Products based on stevia, a natural herb that is sweeter than sugar but doesn't raise blood levels, and products containing sugar alcohols, or polyols, are also finding a place in the consumer's cupboard.

The rise of sugar alcohols

A relative newcomer, Zsweet, is made from erythritol, a naturally occuring sugar alcohol, along with food extracts commonly found in fruits and vegetables as flavor enhancers. Unlike other sugar alternatives, erythritol has been part of the human diet for thousands of years as an ingredient in pears, melons, grapes and cheese, but it has emerged as a popular ingredient for low-calorie foods in recent years. Cerestar USA and parent company Cargill Inc. (www.cargill.com), Minneapolis, are major providors of erythritol and other such sweeteners.

Like other sugar alcohols, erythritol is about 70 percent as sweet as sucrose with a similar taste and texture. It does not promote tooth decay, and it's safe for people with diabetes. However, what sets erythritol apart from other sugar alcohols is its low caloric value and high digestive tolerance. Erythritol has between 7 percent and 13 percent the calories of other polyols and 5 percent of the calories of sucrose. And because it is absorbed rapidly in the small intestine and eliminated within 24 hours, it does not cause the laxative side effects associated with other sugar alcohols. Erythritol also masks the bitter aftertaste that accompanies artificial sweeteners.

"Erythritol is much different than xylitol and maltitol because it's well documented that erythritol will not cause a rise in blood sugar," said Tim Avila, president and Chief Executive Officer of Zsweet maker Ventana Health, Inc. (www.zsweet.com), San Clemente, Calif. "It's bulky and crystalline like sugar and doesn't sacrifice taste." In addition to its table top sugar substitute, Ventana plans to manufacture and market diet smoothies and nutrition bars made with its Zsweet and is also negotiating with other food processors to sell its product in bulk. And Ventana launched an organic Zsweet in the Spring.

Although erythritol performs well in baking applications, it is not as soluble as sugar. That means it doesn't work as a backbone material for heavy syrup. Maltitol is still preferred for those types of applications. What's more, erythritol does not caramelize like sucrose, so the ability to brown the tops of baked goods is limited. Cost is another consideration. Erythritol is the most expensive of the polyols. Still, Avila expects the costs to come down and erythritol suppliers offer solid information for food processors that want to work with this sugar alcohol.

Portion control versus satiety

Another prescription for the American diet is to eat smaller portions. That's all well and good to many consumers -- if they felt satisfied. That's a hard pill to swallow in a "supersize it, bigger is better" world. Studies have shown extremely low-fat foods don't keep hunger at bay and consumers tend to eat more in order to feel full, which works against weight management goals. LightFull Foods (www.lightfullfoods.com) is taking a different approach to weight management with what it calls "the science of satiety."

The Mill Valley, Calif.-based company manufacturers all-natural, on-the-go smoothies blended to create a sensation of fullness. LightFull's flagship product is the Satiety Smoothie, a 90-100 calorie snack packed with six grams of protein. The smoothie is also full of nutrients, including metabolism-boosting antioxidants, calcium and more fiber than a bowl of oatmeal. It's the combination of healthful fiber and protein that makes the difference, says Lara Jackie, co-founder and CEO of LightFull Foods. "Smoothies have a health halo around them, but depending on the smoothie you could be taking in as many calories as a Big Mac," Jackie explains. "Fruit juice is great because it has a lot of nutrients, but it's high in sugar and calories."

The proper combination of fiber and protein release a hormone called cholecystokinin, or CCK, otherwise known as the "I'm full" hormone. The hormone travels from the stomach to the brain and communicates satiety. However, that process takes 20 to 30 minutes to occur. There are other psychological and physical cues. "If a smoothie looks thick and creamy, it seems more filling than something that is watered down," says Lynn Graham, co-founder of LightFull Foods. "Food processors of all kinds can leverage the fiber-protein connection, as well as the visual cues that make people feel fuller."

But does it taste good?

Convenient foods that are low in sugar and fat that fill you up despite the reduced calories are noteworthy, but these are not the only ingredients to winning the hearts -- and the bellies -- of consumers, Best reminds. "Food processors still need the food ingredient technology to offer all that along with flavor, texture, aroma and appearance that consumers expect from their favorite foods," he argues. "I'm not convinced we've figured it all out yet."

Con Agra Foods Inc.'s Healthy Choice (www.healthychoice.com), Omaha, Neb., is trying to figure it out with its frozen dinners and canned goods. Its product line is convenient and admittedly less fattening than some of the other options on the grocery store shelves, but at the end of the long day of work -- or even in the middle of a hectic day on the home front - the meal also has to taste good. Anna Miskovsky, director of research and development for Healthy Choice, says her team works closely with the ConAgra family chefs to incorporate new ingredients and flavor profiles into the product line that boost flavor.

"We pay attention to what is popular in restaurants and foodservice offerings, as well as working with our internal consumer insights team to stay on trend and to continue to meet the ever changing tastes of our consumers," Miskovsky says, noting that today's consumers are more sophisticated, with an understanding that they don't have to compromise taste or convenience to eat healthier.

Healthy Choice chefs are tasked with maintaining U.S. government nutritional criteria for "healthy" by balancing nutrients, including fat and sodium, while keeping the product line fresh for long-term consumers. Miskovsky and her team focus on ingredients that add flavor without relying on salt or fat, such as wines and other spirits, herbs and spices and flavored vinegars.

"Our product line includes the Grilled Whiskey Steak and the Roasted Chicken Chardonnay -- two preparations that feature innovative ingredients not typically found in a frozen meal.  This helps us to maintain the nutritional values of our products, while offering great tasting meals," Miskovsky explains. Healthy Choice chefs also use alternative cooking methods -- grilling, roasting and marinating -- to boost flavor without adding additional sodium, calories or fat.

Weight Watchers Foods, LLC. (www.eatyourbest.com) are also developing new meals for the SmartOnes line, made by Pittsburgh-based H. J. Heinz Co. Sometimes reducing caloric intake means a different cut of meat, other times it means reduced sugar condiments or how a vegetable is presented. "We recently switched to a supplier that provides us all broccoli florets instead of stems," says Robin Teets, a spokesperson for SmartOnes. "That doesn't necessarily impact the taste. Those types of changes don't change the nutritional profile or the taste but they do make a positive impact on perception."

Sensibly seasoned

Glory Foods (www.gloryfoods.com), Columbus, Ohio, is working to meet the demands of its health-conscious customers without sacrificing taste. The company's primary target audience is African Americans who have fond memories of grandma's rich southern cooking but don't necessarily have the time to recreate the dishes on a daily basis. Glory Foods is attempting to help its customers tackle diabetes, weight management and hypertension with its Sensibly Seasoned line of Southern-style foods.

The recently-introduce line of heat-and-serve vegetables reduces sodium by as much as 50 percent, removes almost all the fat and cholesterol, and maintains the southern taste, says Jeff Hollenback, director of research and development for Glory Foods.

The secret is in the preparation, which meets the dietary needs of vegetarian cooking. That means no ham hock or bacon in the collard greens. Glory engineered a natural pork flavoring with soybeans. When mixed with water, the specially formulated powder tastes like ham hocks, but contains no fat. Replicating the flavor-enhancing impacts of salt was a separate challenge.

"We couldn't get the same savory flavor with less than 140mg of sodium per serving, so we inched it up a bit and settled for lower sodium," Hollenback explains. "Our Sensibly Seasoned line is now 100-percent vegetarian with only naturally occurring fats and much lower sodium. Our customers are eating it up."

While the ultimate choice to exercise, eat nutrient-rich foods, and maintain appropriate caloric intake still remains with consumers, Best says. Food processors can't change people's lifestyles, but they can offer more options -- and they are. "People are wrong to put too many expectations on the food processing industry," Best insists. "We'll keep trying to offer reduced calorie products that taste better, are better for you and satisfy your hunger. But if people don't change the way they live, food products will only have a limited impact."

 

Regulatory Issues
The regulation of food advertising to children remains a controversial issue. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has joined legislators, health experts, consumer advocacy groups and industry representatives in forming the Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity to assess the influence of media on obesity rates, and recommend voluntary solutions. Some FCC commissioners believe food advertising to children should be further restricted unless the Task Force agrees on sufficient self-regulation.
Counter arguments rely on information suggesting ad restrictions may not be effective, including a Swedish study showing a significant increase in childhood obesity there, despite a ban on children's advertising. At this date, no conclusions have been reached. However, the Task Force will meet throughout 2007 in an effort to build consensus regarding voluntary steps and goals both the public and private sectors can take to combat childhood obesity.
For more information check out the FCC website at www.fcc.gov/obesity and watch this space for a full report upon conclusion of the the task force's assessment.
--Leslie Krasny

 

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