More than a decade ago, low-fat and low-calorie weight-loss items dominated the grocery aisles. Unfortunately, these foods often were also low on taste. Their appeal soon went the way of heavy metal bands and M.C. Hammer pants. As it sometimes happens with fashion, diet fads also recycle.

Lauren Swann was in junior high school when Robert C. Atkins M.D. introduced his first book, Dr. Atkin's Diet Revolution, in 1972. Revolve is indeed what low-carb diets have done. After Dr. Atkin's diet lost popularity to low-calorie and low-fat diets in the 1980s, it once again resurfaced during the 1990s and peaked with double-digit growth in late 2003.

According to the “2005 Prepared Foods R&D Trends: Weight Control Formulations Survey,” 35.7% of the respondents consider low-carb diets to be a fad that will not last 6-12 more months. “Every couple of decades, low-carb gets re-introduced, which, for me, is proof that it's not a magic bullet,” says Swann, a registered dietitian and president of Concept Nutrition Inc., a nutrition consulting service to the food industry.

As many companies toss away warehouses full of low-carb pastas and bread mixes, Swann cautions that manufacturers not toss out the baby with the bath water. The baby--the many ingredients that made low-carb possible--also can assist in the formulation of low-fat and low-calorie products.

Much of the “innovation” attributed to low-carb foods really was not innovation at all, agrees Kevin Bauer, vice president of sales and marketing at a company that produces high-potency sweeteners.

“When it comes to formulating products with high-potency sweeteners, it doesn't matter if you brand your product low-calorie, low-carb or reduced-sugar; those categories are interchangeable,” informs Bauer. They require the same ingredients to function.


All high-potency sweeteners have benefited greatly from low-carb foods over the course of the last two years. “Some a little more than others,” says Bauer. The prevailing sentiment that manufacturers should carry away from the low-carb era is the same thing they learned when low-fat dieting was popular: consumers will not sacrifice taste for nutrition.

Of the more popular high-potency sweeteners (which include saccharine and acesulfame potassium, besides sugar itself), aspartame is considered a gold standard sweetener by some. Composed of two naturally-occurring amino acids, L-phenylalanine and aspartic acid, which can be found in fruits, vegetables and dairy sources, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Having only debuted in 2002, neotame has not been on the scene long enough to benefit from low-carb forces. However, at 8,000 times the sweetness of sugar (thereby making it more cost effective), it likely will find huge success as low-calorie products take center stage. It is approved as a sweetener and flavor enhancer, and has the unique capability of taking vanilla, mint and citrus flavors and potentiating them, says one supplier.

All high-potency sweeteners have different taste characteristics, sweetness onset and lingering properties. “We've found that neotame has a shorter onset and lingers a little bit longer,” relates Bauer.

Sugar alcohols or polyols also are nutritive sweeteners that hit the jackpot during the carb years. They reduce calories and do not promote tooth decay. Polyols especially are significant because of their ability to add bulk back to products--a functionality that is not possible with either aspartame or neotame.

The sugar alcohol xylitol has 2.4Kcal/g versus sugar's 4Kcal/g, but is 40% sweeter than sugar and--like other sugar alcohols--it is able to replace the bulk of sugar in a one-to-one substitution. It is a free-flowing, natural ingredient derived from birch trees in Scandinavia and corncobs in China. Xylitol has a cooling effect that can be useful in sugar-free gums, candies and mints.

Erythritol has only 0.2Kcal/g, though when analyzed in a lab, the number can be higher. This will pose a similar labeling concern for low-calorie products as it did for low-carb manufacturers who boasted net carbs, says Swann. “The nutrition label represents only the food composition, but it does not take into consideration how the body handles it.”

Just as bacteria do not feed on xylitol or erythritol because of the carbon structure, yeast used to bake breads cannot feed on them, either. This impedes dough from rising due to reduced yeast fermentation, and stops the baked product from hardening. Fortunately, it does not affect cookies, cheesecake or brownies.

Most polyols are processed incompletely by the body and at a much lower rate. Unfortunately, sugar alcohols are not as suitable for beverages since large servings can cause digestive irregularities. Although xylitol is FDA-approved for use in unlimited quantities, the limit of consumption without intestinal distress is typically set at 90g/day.

Sucralose, the sweetener most closely associated with the low-carb diet, is a chlorinated sugar derivative that is 600 times the sweetness of sugar. Sucralose's success seems evident in its popularity and rumors indicate that a sucralose shortage, due to increased demand and limited resources, will increase the price in 2005.

Many of the above-mentioned sweeteners have made inroads into creating products for diabetics and those interested in the glycemic load.

The glycemic index certainly was not lonely while dragging the bottom, with 33% of respondents ranking it as the least likely source of assistance consumers would use to solve weight problems. Some 26% of respondents negated that "no fat" would be a resource to consumers, and 22% said "sugar free" also held a low standing.

“The reason it became so easy for people who support low-carb [diets] to vilify low-fat [products] was that the pyramid and the dietary guidelines had up to 65% of calories coming from carbs and people were eating a lot of refined carbohydrates with less emphasis on total calories,” says Swann. “I think we've seen the low-carb fad stabilize. It is definitely not growing. Some people think it is dying, but I think some aspects of it are here to stay permanently.”

When asked "...which products would your company likely be interested in marketing?" 41% of manufacturers gave products promoted as low-carb top billing over several weight-loss marketing choices; they were outdone only by "reduced/no sugar," which is conceptually a similar formulation

With 79.3% of respondents, “reduced fat” ranked first as the food and beverage formulation that manufacturers believe consumers will “very likely” look to for weight control. Low-calorie and reduced-sugar products took second and third with 67.1% and 64.6%, respectively.

Low-fat Makes a Comeback

Authorities began demonizing fat consumption in the 1950s, proposing that dietary fat intake should decrease to about 30% to 35% of daily caloric intake. This was problematic, as fat and protein increase satiety, thereby creating a feeling of fullness. When eating a high-carb diet that is low in fat, the blood sugar will spike and fall, leaving the diner as hungry as he was an hour or two ago, enticing him to overeat. Swann considers overeating without enough exercise and physical activity to be the main culprit to obesity.

“I think the low-fat message was distorted or wasn't interpreted properly. The message that got out to the public in the 1980s was 'don't worry about how many carbohydrates or even calories that you eat, as long as you eat a limited amount of fat,'” she says.

Many manufacturers already have begun searching for fat replacers, as they struggle to reduce trans fatty acid levels. “Unlike in the 1990s, I think manufacturers will be very conscious about the calorie count and the fat profile,” predicts Scott Kadish, marketing manager at an ingredients supplier. There are a number of fat replacement technologies on the market, each working in different applications. Fat replacers can be protein-, carb- or fat-based. Some work better in frying and others in baking applications. Olestra is an example of a fat replacer that is versatile with both.

“Today there has been a renewed interest in olestra and companies are beginning to reposition their products to meet this growing concern around fat and calories,” says Kadish. After reviewing additional data, the FDA dropped the requirement for foods containing olestra to display the temporary advisory statement that cautioned eaters to beware of digestive irregularities.

Olestra is created by combining soybean or cottonseed oil with sucrose (table sugar). The result is a product that has a texture and taste like regular fat and formulates into products like regular fat--and contributes zero fat and calories.

The current regulation allows olestra to be used only in pre-packaged savory snacks and ready-to-heat popcorn applications (i.e., microwave popcorn), but its functionality also would work in baked goods such as a cookie or piecrust.

“Instead of frying potato chips in cottonseed oil, manufacturers can fry their products with olestra,” says Kadish. Such is the case with Frito Lay's (PepsiCo, Purchase, N.Y.) Light[tm] potato chips and Procter & Gamble's Fat Free Pringles“.

Microparticulated whey protein (MWP) concentrate is another alternative. It is easily dispersible in both cold water and milk solutions. Once in contact with such liquid phases, MWP absorbs water and forms particles that are similar to fat globules, hence providing a fat-like mouthfeel. Low-fat ice cream, low-fat cheese and low-fat dairy/coffee beverages are the main application segments for microparticulated protein within fat substitution.

“MWP is now promoted as much more than a fat substitute. It is a unique texturizing agent, which provides an improved, creamy and round mouthfeel,” states Pierre Perez, senior business manager at a carrageenan supplier that also produces fat replacers.

It is used to obtain yield improvement and spreadability, improved mouthfeel, whitening effect and dairy protein content in fermented dairy products, soups and beverages. MWP is known as a dairy/whey protein, and it is globally label-friendly.

Fatty acid esters of sorbitol and sorbitol anhydrides and esterified propoxylated glycerol (EPG) are two additional fat-based fat replacers. Polydextrose, maltodextrin and gums are examples of carb-based ingredients that can be used as fat replacers.

Nutrient density also is just as important as reducing calories and fat. “One of the things about [certain popular low-fat products] that I found disconcerting was consumers were basically getting a mouthful of artificially sweetened starch that included few other nutrients,” expresses Swann.

Swann suggests it is possible to substitute applesauce or puréed prunes when making brownies or fat-free muffins. She also makes reference to Michigan State University (East Lansing, Mich.) research, which came up with a way to mix cherries with ground beef to lower fat and still get a juicy burger. “That is a wonderful way of getting fruit in the diet. If we can focus on using the foods the way they are naturally in the food supply, they are more likely to be successful in weight loss down the road,” offers Swann.

Dietary Fiber and Whole Grains

High-fiber foods lower the glycemic load. Interestingly, 77% and 66% of manufacturers believe that dietary fiber and whole grains, respectively, will assist in formulating food or beverage products for consumers concerned about weight.

“Increasing fiber in your diet helps with glucose management,” says Swann. “We are going to see more emphasis on whole grain foods, whole wheat flour and pasta, brown rice and other kinds of grains like barley, spelt or quinoa.” Other notable survey responses designated soy protein, vegetables and omega-3s high among the list of ingredients manufacturers think will assist consumers with glucose management.

“Consumer research is an important part of bringing a successful product on the market,” informs Kadish. In fact, the PF survey indicates that ingredients manufacturers personally believe are beneficial to weight loss formulations are comparable to those ingredients consumers also recognize as useful.

Bauer suggests manufacturers work with consumers to make sure they understand the benefits and roles that high-potency sweeteners play in reduced-calorie, -carb and -sugar foods. “Everything in moderation is good and that includes high-potency sweeteners.”

Regardless of its low-fat or low-carb status, the consumer wants to know if the product will provide a healthier source of fat or whole grain flour instead of refined flour. Nutritionists are encouraging manufacturers to heed this message.

“Most of the populations of the world do not have problems with obesity and are eating high-carb diets,” informs Swann.

Research shows that what works for one person might not work for another person. The concept of prescription meal plans has existed as long as there have been dietitians who give out customized nutritional council based on health assessments. Roughly 25% of the U.S. population suffers from a pre-diabetic condition referred to as metabolic syndrome. Such individuals often tend to benefit from a carb-controlled diet.

Researchers at the University of California--Davis also believe tailoring fat intake to specific body types is the wave of the future. Science and experience demonstrates that the diet of choice is relative to the dieter. As long as the calories remain low, the ingredients that create the products can be similar.