Ready for the Low-Calorie Craze?

Sep 25, 2004

Could low-calorie be the next low-carb? If new product trends are any indication, the answer is an unqualified yes.

A Calorie Control Council (CCC; Atlanta) survey found that while many Americans clearly have been influenced by the low-carb trend, almost as many are combining calorie reduction with exercise as a means of weight control. “Although carbohydrate content is a factor when it comes to weight control, this survey indicates that most dieters are not giving up on proven, no-nonsense approaches that can be maintained over the long term,” says Lyn Nabors, CCC’s executive vice president.

Photo courtesy of Heritage Family Specialty Foods

Photo courtesy of Heritage Family Specialty Foods.

So what are people buying to cut calories? The survey found that 96% cut down on foods high in sugar or fat. Another 81% use low-calorie and reduced-fat foods and beverages. “The good news is that most dieters seem to be trying to make life-style changes such as watching fat and calories, incorporating light foods as part of an overall healthy life-style, eating smaller portions, and increasing their physical activity,” says Nabors.

Manufacturers are responding to demand and have already launched 894 new low-cal food and beverage products since January 2004, according to Tom Vierhile, executive editor of ProductScan Online.com (Naples, NY).

NEW ENTREES AND SIDE DISHES

New low-cal offerings try to match healthy ingredients with strong flavors and textures. Simple Asia LLC (Union City, CA) introduced soups and soy noodles made by baking thin sheets of tofu and cutting them into tender noodle strips. The noodles have 7 g of protein per serving, yet are low in carbohydrates (5.5–8.5 net carbs) and calories (60–70). According to Simple Asia, the soy noodles absorb the rich and savory flavors of the authentic soup broth. Varieties include mushroom and ginger (net 5.5 carbs), savory onion (net 8.5 carbs), and Szechwan garlic (net 7.5 carbs). Each comes in a heat-and-serve bowl.

While not exactly low-calorie, Wise Foods’ (Kennesaw, GA) Wise Choice Potato Crisps illustrate how even mainstream food companies are retooling their product lines. Wise Foods’ first line of all-natural healthy snacks, the crisps have no trans fat or hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, or artificial colors. Baked, the crisps contain 70% less fat than traditional potato chips and 100 calories per serving. In addition, the company’s Soy-Potato crisps provide 6.25 g of soy per serving. “This isn’t about dieting,” says Jordi Ferre, Wise Foods’ vice president of marketing. “A growing number of consumers are looking for healthy snacking options for themselves and their families. These are real people with real concerns for a healthy life-style.”

Similarly, Tea-n-Crumpets’ (San Rafael, CA) new cinnamon and buttermilk crumpets, offered as a fat-free, low-calorie alternative to bagels, toast, and English muffins, come in convenient six-count, vacuum-sealed packages. Made from 100% organic flour, the crumpets contain no fat, dairy, sugar, oils, cholesterol, or preservatives, and average about 80 calories each. The products can be refrigerated or frozen to extend shelf life.

Consumers looking for other low-fat items may also be interested in a line of low-cal peanut butter spreads from Peanut Better Inc. (Chatsworth, CA). The company’s Peanut Better products are 5–20% lower in fat and calories than other kinds of peanut butter and are also free of added hydrogenated oils and emulsifiers. The products are also kosher, vegan, and certified organic. Earlier this summer, Peanut Better introduced its newest variety, Sweet Molasses Peanut Better, which comes in a 10-oz resealable jar.

Another low-fat and low-calorie product, Esparrago Zesty Chunky Asparagus Salsa from Cedar Run Farms LLC (Pittsgrove, NJ), was designed to offer consumers “great taste” with “no guilt.” The salsa, available in a resealable 11.5-oz glass jar, contains no fat or cholesterol.

Perhaps one of the most innovative low-cal offerings this year is a mashed-potato alternative from Heritage Family Specialty Foods Inc. (Grand Prairie, TX) called ImiTaters. Made from cauliflower, ImiTaters have the same taste and consistency as real mashed potatoes but have 50% fewer calories and fewer carbohydrates than frozen mashed potatoes. The new product comes in several flavors, including savory garlic and smoky chipotle. “In today’s grocery environment, managers are most concerned with product sell-through and rapid consumer adoption,” says Daniel Brackeen, president of Heritage Family Specialty Foods. “We’ve found that consumers are looking for a unique, delicious-tasting, gourmet replacement in their diets, and ImiTaters fits the bill.”

NEW BEVERAGES

Several new low-cal beverages aim to combine healthy ingredients with great taste. For instance, Long Island–based Energy Multi-Vitamin Enhanced Water Corp. (Brentwood, NY) introduced two new SKUs of its Multi-Vitamin Healthy Waters in August, creating what it calls a “natural niche” in the fast-growing enhanced-water market. “Our waters offer great taste and energy naturally, without the artificial flavors, colorings, taurine, caffeine, and other additives in competing products,” says company executive Raymond Jaquez. Each 8-oz serving has less than 50 calories and 13 g of carbohydrates; two new low-carb varieties have no calories. Each 20-oz bottle provides 125% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin C and 40% of the RDA for vitamins A, E, B2, B3, B5, B6, and B12. The drinks deliver significant amounts of minerals and other nutrients, including calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium, iodine, and chromium.

Soymilk manufacturer 8th Continent (Minnetonka, MN) is now promoting a light version of its popular soymilk, 8th Continent Vanilla Light Soymilk. Available in a resealable 64-fl-oz hourglass-shaped bottle, the product carries the American Heart Association’s (Dallas) heart check mark and is also labeled as an excellent source of calcium. Vanilla Light Soymilk is low in fat, cholesterol free, and contains 7 g of Solae soy protein per serving. Each serving also provides vitamins A, B12, and D.

For consumers who prefer cultured- soy beverages, WholeSoy Co. (San Francisco) has introduced its Lite Soy Smoothie. The smoothie, which comes in peach, strawberry, raspberry, and vanilla flavors, has less than 25% of the carbs, 33% of the sugar, and 50% of the calories of regular cultured soy smoothies, according to the company. Each serving is vegan and contains 5 g of soy protein.

Tea-flavored beverages tend to be high in added sugar, but Hain Celestial Group’s (Boulder, CO) new Celestial Seasonings Zingerade herb teas contain 33% fewer calories than leading juice blends. Each serving of the beverages, which are billed as “unique blends of herb tea, juice, and lemonade,” provide 100% of the daily value of vitamin C. Flavors include sweet peach delight, wild berry, and tropical ruby red.

Finally, Liquid Assets Plus Inc. (Denver) hopes to prove that it is the king of the low-cal jungle with its new The Energy Gorilla line of energy drinks. Packaged in 16-fl-oz cans with pull-tab rings, the product is available in Lo-Carb, Lo-Cal Safari Blueberry, Congo Citrus, and Blue Mist Blueberry. The Safari version provides just 10 calories and 1 g of carbohydrates and also contains guarana, Panax ginseng, and niacin, while the Congo beverage contains ginseng, taurine, B vitamins, calcium, and vitamin C. The company’s Blue Mist energy drink contains ginseng, taurine, niacin, and guarana.

LOW-CAL INGREDIENTS

Several different kinds of ingredients can help make low-calorie foods and beverages taste more like their conventional counterparts. Alternative sweeteners, bulk replacers, and specialty fibers all help improve the functional and organoleptic characteristics of low-cal products. What’s more, many of these ingredients also offer additional health benefits.

According to Donna Brooks, product manager at Danisco Sweeteners (Ardsley, NY), there have been different nutritional trends throughout the years, but the idea of calorie control is the one concept that nutritionists agree on wholeheartedly.

“The one recurring theme seems to be that calories are what counts,” Brooks says. Danisco Sweeteners offers several different options for low-cal manufacturers, including the prebiotic fiber Litesse polydextrose and the sweeteners Xylitol and Lactitol, which are sugar alcohols.

Litesse polydextrose is a low-calorie, water-soluble specialty carbohydrate that acts as both a bulking agent and as a prebiotic fiber. The ingredient has a low glycemic index (GI) value (5–7, compared with glucose’s 100), can be used to partially replace sugar and some fats in baked goods, and also stimulates Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria in the colon.

“It’s one of the lowest-calorie options out there,” Brooks says. “It’s an option that lets you create a more healthful product while reducing calories as well.”

Litesse also has several functional benefits. Although it is a fiber, it is highly soluble and stable over a wide range of pH values, which makes it useful in beverages. In baked goods, Litesse also controls moisture by acting as a humectant. Overall, its neutral taste makes it useful for a range of products that have highly calibrated flavor systems.

Xylitol and Lactitol are reduced-calorie sweeteners that also offer some additional benefits. With a caloric value of 2.4 kcal/g, Xylitol has 40% fewer calories than sugar with an equivalent sweetness level, Brooks notes, adding that it has a negative heat of solution, which results in a cooling effect when the sweetener dissolves. Because of the cooling effect, Xylitol works well in mint-flavored products. Another useful property of Xylitol is that it has been shown to inhibit the growth of Streptococcus mutans bacteria in the mouth, which makes it cariostatic.

Lactitol, a prebiotic sugar alcohol derived from milk sugar, has some physical properties that are similar to sucrose, which makes it a useful substitute for sugar in baked goods. Lactitol’s relative sweetness is only 0.3–0.4 times that of sucrose. In some cases, its lower relative sweetness can help manufacturers make low-calorie applications with reduced sweetness levels, which is sometimes desirable.

Additionally, both sweeteners have little impact on blood sugar levels, which makes them useful additions to low-sugar and low-GI products. According to Brooks, Danisco has seen a lot of recent interest among manufacturers in ingredients that can help with sugar reduction. Although each ingredient offers its own set of benefits, Brooks says that they typically are combined when used in food applications. Determining the right combination of ingredients is usually more complicated than simply taking out the sugar and replacing it with something else; it can take a lot of trial and error.

“It depends on what your end product’s criteria are,” Brooks says, adding that a manufacturer’s requirements for calories, cost, taste, and low GI levels can all affect the formula.