The nutrition tide is turning, and product formulators are being knocked overboard along with the foundations of what constitutes a healthy diet. The 2004 Prepared Foods' Exclusive R&D Trends Survey, Weight Control Formulations, queried industry practitioners responsible for product formulation/re-formulation, marketing and quality control. In the group, 50% were in research and development, 26% were in marketing/sales, and the rest were in general management and purchasing.

The study presents a snapshot of what product trends are being considered and implemented in providing foods and beverages for consumers concerned about weight control. The results show specifically that low- and reduced-carb diets present to food formulators a tremendous opportunity to create, as one respondent stated, “unique, never-before-done-products.”

With the government focusing heavily on reducing obesity, more pressure has been placed on manufacturers to create healthful and delicious products. Over the past couple of years, however, public opinion of diets low in carbohydrates such as the meal regimens proposed by the late Dr. Robert C. Atkins or Dr. Arthur Agatston's South Beach diet has positively increased, so much so that the USDA may need to re-examine whether the fundamentals of the Food Guide Pyramid have acted in anchoring the country to obesity.

Citing research from the report, “Low Carb Craze is Helping Some Categories and Hurting Others,” John McMillin, a senior food analyst and managing director of food and agribusiness for Prudential Equity Group (New York), says an estimated 25 to 50 million Americans suddenly are dieting not by lowering fat content, but by reducing carbohydrate intake. The report states, “Over five million Americans may now be on Atkins or modified versions like the South Beach Diet.”

Food manufacturers not paying attention could be swept below the surface by the undercurrent. The low-carb diet already has made its impact on some in the industry. Slim Fast is “really falling off a cliff,” says McMillin. He notes that this time a year ago, Slim Fast revenues were up 20%, and last quarter it was down 30% with a year to date decline of 18%.

The assertion behind low-carb diets, in which the concept of the glycemic index is crucial, is that when the USDA recommended that we eat less meat and fat, people turned to diets high in carbs. “When you put people on a high-carb diet, it induces and releases insulin, which increases appetite and causes people to eat more,” explains Dan Best, marketing director for an ingredient supplier.

Conversely, the low-carb diet approach recommends that dieters avoid foods that are either high in carbohydrates or have a high glycemic index. The glycemic index numerical system quantifies how much a food will cause a rise in blood (glucose) sugar.

These popular diets operate on the premise that foods with low glycemic indexes are better than those that are high. “What's more important [than glycemic index] is glycemic load,” says Nicole Brown, M.S., R.D. “The glycemic index tells you only how rapidly a particular carbohydrate turns into sugar, it doesn't tell you how much of that particular carb is in a serving of that food.”

Brown contends that such misconceptions are confusing to consumers and invokes them to reduce foods high in fiber, which have a lower caloric level and are very nutrient-dense.

“All carbs are not alike. There are simple carbs and there are complex carbs, and each is metabolized very differently,” says Bill Haines, vice president of business-to-business marketing for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI—Rosemont, Ill.).

Wherefore Art Thou, Low-Fat?

Half of the respondents in our survey think that consumers still are likely to look to reduced-fat foods on their weight-loss journey. One has to delve a bit deeper into what this means for low-fat products.

It appears that fat reduction has taken a back seat to lowering carbs. Whereas 87% of Prepared Foods survey respondents believe that Atkins will continue to be popular among consumers for the next two years, only 34% said the same for the Jenny Craig diet, which focuses on reducing fat and limiting portions. Based on the results of the survey, it seems manufacturers still are torn about what constitutes a weight-loss diet and how they should direct their product formulations.

Fewer processors are concerned with the process of eliminating fat and the ingredients that assist therein. “I just don't see the fat replacers being a big deal right now. I don't think the focus of the industry is there,” concurs Best.

“Ironically it is fat that has become fashionable in food products!” reads a statement in the report by McMillin's research group. Unlike in any other diet, followers of the Atkins program eat foods high in fat and protein; this principle is accepted and often encouraged, and contradicts contemporary nutrition studies. As a result of the popularity enjoyed by the Atkins and other low-carb plans, 69% of PF's respondents ranked (on a scale from 1-10) low-carbohydrate diets as the number one and two choices consumers will “most likely” look to for weight-loss assistance.

On the other hand, respondents were less enthusiastic about “high-protein” diets per se, since only 28% ranked them as “most likely” and 32% ranked them “least likely” to be chosen as a consumer choice for weight-loss assistance.

“I don't think the solution is to eat high-protein diets but high-fiber diets. If you take the digestible carbs out of a product, you can replace it with dietary fiber, or non-digestable carbohydrates,” says Best. Indeed, most in the survey understand the usefulness of dietary fiber. When given a list of 21 ingredients or types of ingredients that may be of assistance in product formulation for weight control, 69% of respondents checked off dietary fiber. In a separate question on consumer perceptions, 72% of manufacturers consider it an ingredient that consumers would recognize as beneficial to weight loss.

And, of course, challenges in formulating weight-loss products have gone far beyond nutritional concerns to include sensory quality.

Texture Challenge

Adding dietary fiber or protein to reduce or eliminate carbohydrates still presents a significant formulation problem with moisture retention and texture. Not all dietary fiber is the same. Soluble dietary fiber tends to absorb water and helps manage moisture in products, and insoluble fiber often will dry out and toughen a product.

“When you formulate one of the major constituents out of a product, whether it is protein, fat or carbs, your immediate challenge is to maintain the taste and textural characteristics of the product that consumers are going to like,” says Haines.

Other ingredients, such as sugar alcohols, gums, resistance starches and polydextrose are potentially beneficial in the development of weight control products, but fall behind fiber both in the minds of manufacturers and what they think consumers will recognize as beneficial. “Consumers are more apt to tell you what they don't want to see, but I don't know if they understand what they should be seeing,” says Pam Eitmant, a sensory consultant at Product Dynamics Inc., located in Orland Park, Ill.

Consumers may not be aware of the presence or purpose of starch and sugar, but would certainly be aware of their absence. Respondents agree that the following ingredients provide the structural integrity and textural tenacity that would otherwise be missing in low-carb products:

n Protein. Although low-fat no longer seems to be a concern, cholesterol still is. Atkins dieters avoiding fat and cholesterol are still looking for products rich in protein. “We think that this is a huge opportunity for whey protein,” says Haines, who maintains that whey is easy to use. Its flavor characteristics have neutral solubility across a wide pH range.

n Resistance Starch. Replacing flour with resistance starches lowers the glycemic impact of high-carb foods. It is a more plausible substitution than adding protein to replace digestible starches since, depending on the formulation, most bread and other baked goods made with protein can turn rubbery, explains Rhonda Witwer, business development manager with an ingredient company.

n Flax Seed, which is 95% unsaturated, is one of the richest sources of omega-3 oils and contains less than 3% digestible carbohydrates. “You can replace up to 20% of wheat flour in bread with flax seed and get a good loaf of bread,” says Best. “Flax seed acts like corn meal except it has a lot less carbs.”

n Polydextrose, a randomly branched, low-glycemic polysaccharide, is another option to consider as a replacement for flour. It has been used in sugar-free products like Fifty50 Hard Candy (Fifty50—Mendham, N.J.), suitable for diabetics. According to Tony Armando, vice president of technology at Food Marketing Support Services Inc. (Oak Park, Ill.), a sensory and formulation consulting company, “It is relatively tasteless, can mask some off-flavors from vitamins and minerals, does not change viscosity and is stable for most processing and temperature conditions.”

Tasteful Formats

Flavor was ranked as the number one formulation challenge when designing foods that are low in carbohydrates.

“It boils down to two issues, texture and flavor [or taste of sugar]. If you don't have those, you're going to be swimming upstream to try to get consumers to buy your product,” says Best.

When asked what type(s) of product formats consumers are more likely to turn to when trying to control their weight, one respondent simply wrote, “good-tasting food.” Although the answer is common sense, the reality is that a lot of weight control products are not as appetizing as their less-healthful counterparts. “We are dealing with very educated consumers, and they are no longer willing to tradeoff taste for nutrition,” states Eitmant. “Products that are going to be successful need to have both.”

“Sugar not only provides sweetness but also serves distinct functional properties in applications such as crystallization in candies; crumb tenderizing, moisture retention, crust color formation and shelflife improvement in both baked goods and ready to eat cereal; and water immobilization in ice cream,” explains Armando. The bulking agent identified to replace sugar should be chosen carefully to ensure that specific functionality is maintained, while reducing calories and carbohydrates.

Retaining taste, while attempting to reduce carbohydrates or fat, is particularly difficult. Simple carbohydrates, such as refined sugar and starch, are the primary components of avoidance for low-carb diets.

Sweeteners. Non-nutritive sweeteners make amends for the loss of sweetness because they possess many of the benefits of sugar minus any dietary absorption. For instance, sucralose, a sugar-derived, no-calorie sweetener that is 600 times sweeter than sugar, has been consumed around the world for over 10 years with great consumer acceptance.

Sucralose. According to Carolyn Merkel, an executive responsible for technical and consumer research information pertaining to sucralose, it is a popular sugar replacement because its taste profile is remarkably similar to sugar, it remains shelf-stable and is easy to use in baking. “In many other cases, the flavor-enhancing properties of sucralose can result in products that are more acceptable to consumers than the full-sugar products,” suggests Merkel.

However, there is also a point of diminishing return, as adding more high intensity sweetener will not make the product sweeter, explains Nancy Rodriguez, president and founder of Food Marketing Support Services Inc. The challenge is that with most high intensity sweeteners, including sucralose, there is a palate “numbing” that occurs which, at increased usage levels, becomes problematic to the formulator. “Sugar is a cleaner eat; there is no lingering mouth sensation or extra baggage,” says Rodriguez.

Sugar Alcohols. “Formulators have to find synergies between sweeteners,” says Best. Polyols or sugar alcohols are not sugar, but the body treats them as though they were. They are more slowly metabolized and cause a small rise in blood glucose levels but can be considered as replacements to high-glycemic carbohydrates such as sugars, starches and maltodextrins. According to Armando, the low hygroscopicity of polyols is conducive to increased shelflife in cookies, biscuits and bakery mixes. They also act as crystal modifiers in frozen desserts.


“The nutritional rules have changed, and science has to catch up,” explains Best. “The jury is out on what will be the long term-effects [of low-carb diets].”

Brown admits that weight loss with low-carb diets is achievable but based on information available from The National Weight Loss Control Registry, an ongoing research study of about 3,000 people that chronicles their significant weight-loss history (see Website Resources), the people that have the most success with weight loss and long-term weight-loss maintenance are those following low-fat eating patterns, with adequate amounts of protein and higher amounts of carbohydrates. These are people who have lost at least 30lbs., and have kept the weight off for at least 5.5 years.

Critics of the Atkins diet are absolutely correct when they say, “We don't know what the long-term effects of this diet are, but we also didn't know [years ago] what the long-term consequences would be of reducing fat,” says Best.

One thing everyone agrees on is that a diet high in fiber increases weight loss. “Because there is a consumer interest, manufacturers who produce low-carb foods think they are going to make a ton of money,” says Brown. “But dieticians would unequivocally say food manufacturers can help influence Americans by cultivating a taste to increase their fiber intake, coming from fruits and vegetables and whole grain products. That would really be applauded.”

Product Formulation

Everybody in the food industry has their eyes on the weight control market. PF respondents describe 46%, 32%, and 22% of their company's future weight-loss product development efforts as brand-new products, reformulated products and new market positioning for current products (respectively).

In the future, manufacturers will be looking to include dieticians on the formulation end, as do groups like Food Marketing Support Services Inc. “I see the output of some of the calorie-reduced foods and…many are of very poor quality,” states Rodriguez.

Rodriguez's team created products like Viactiv, a successful line of nutritionally fortified products for women, made by women. Unlike many manufacturers, her company targets the nutritional characteristics of the product and then adjusts the sensory qualities to fit. “Before we begin blending, we know what this thing should taste like, look like, and feel like, as well as what its nutritional profile will be. Although that takes a lot of upfront investment, it pays off on the other side,” says Rodriguez. “It's much smarter to target your nutritionals ahead of time and formulate to them, versus trying to trim a formula to meet them.”

Staying Afloat

The next couple of years will be a very exciting time in the food industry. “The underlining message is make every carb count,” asserts Best. “It's not that [products] can't have carbs or that [they] shouldn't have any carbs.” The obesity epidemic is an opportunity for manufacturers to satisfy consumer demands, thereby opening up more jobs for formulators while simultaneously increasing the competitive edge and the profit margins.

Manufacturers should keep in mind that success over obesity will be measured by consistency. With that in mind, whether manufacturers swim the turbulent waters of low-carb success or the staid pools of nutrition standards, they just might find that the tide will still bring them back to solid ground.

Website Resources — Obesity Policy Report — “The Truth about Carbs,” a Weight Watchers article — Dairy Management Inc. — Atkins Nutritionals Inc. — “The Low-Carb Food Fight Ahead,” article from Business Week Online — Food Marketing Support Services Inc. — National Weight Loss Control

Government Regulations

“With fat labeling, it was pretty clear what had to be done to call a product low-fat, or reduced-fat,” says Haines. “The rules have not yet been established for low-carb or reduced-carb.”

The issue at hand is: What constitutes a carbohydrate? For example, are sugar alcohols carbohydrates? Which ingredients will be included as dietary fibers and which as digestible carbs? Processors must be wary not to eliminate ingredients solely on glycemic indexes. Fructose is digested differently than sucrose or glucose.

“The FDA is stepping in and is going to start regulating the definition of low-carb,” says Best. A recent example is the injunction against Carbolite Foods Inc. (Evansville, Ind.) to change even the name of the company, because the FDA felt it was misleading. “They are not going to crack down on manufacturers just for using the term low-carb, but your labeling should accurately represent that claim,” speculates Best.