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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"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."

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