Article: Obesity: Politics to Products -- December 2009
by Claudia O’Donnell
As Americans continue to put on pounds, food and supplement manufacturers are launching products to attract consumers concerned about weight. Low-fat formulations continue to dominate, but a subtle shift towards using value-added, beneficial ingredients may be taking place.
The International Foods Information Council’s (IFIC) “2009 Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey” reports that, of the 1,005 adult Americans surveyed, 31% said weight, second only to cardiovascular disease, was their major health concern. The majority of respondents said they had made a change in the last six months to improve the healthfulness of their diet. Although a number of reasons were given for changes, 61% said it was to lose weight (down from IFIC’s 2008 survey), and 17% said it was to maintain their weight (up from the 2008 survey).
A sampling of September 2009 North American product launches, as recorded by Mintel’s GNPD, exemplifies the range of weight management products hitting the market. Heinz’s Weight Watchers Smart Ones Homestyle Vegetable and Noodle Soup promises to “assist in achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight, because it is a high source of fiber and low in fat.” Applied Nutrition’s Triple Fat Burner Green Tea Liquid Soft-Gel notes it will “increase fat burning ability, provide energy support…” as it contains 200mg each of green, white and orange pekoe (black) tea extract. Aldi’s Fit & Active brand launched a Lemonade Sugar-Free (and calorie-free) drink sweetened with high aspartame and acesulfame potassium, and Atkins Nutritional’s Advantage’s reformulated 160Kcal/serving Milk Chocolate Delight Shake is “described as a powerful lifetime approach to successful weight loss and weight management.” It contains 15g of protein (milk protein concentrate and soy protein isolates) and 1g of “net carbohydrates,” which excludes its 3g of dietary fiber contributed by cocoa powder and a variety of hydrocolloid gums.
Overweight, but Holding Steady?
In the last few decades, the girth of Americans has been the focus of public policy makers to product developers looking for market opportunities. The severity of this health issue differs significantly by demographic group. For example, only 9.0% of “non-Hispanic white women” in Washington D.C. are classified as obese (defined as BMI ≥30), according to a 2009 CDC report using self-reported measurements1, while 45.1% of “non-Hispanic blacks” in Maine are considered obese. The report says that at least three factors account for variations in obesity, including differences in behaviors (e.g., the likelihood to engage in non-occupational physical activity); less access to affordable, healthful foods and safe locations for physical activity; and lastly, attitudes and cultural norms. For example, non-Hispanic black and Hispanic women have been found to be more satisfied with their body size than non-Hispanic white women. The report notes that satisfaction equates with reduced efforts to manage weight.
Indeed, those in the food industry indicate that decreased concern over weight may be ingrained among consumers. In the recently completed “2009 Prepared Foods’ R&D Trends Survey: Weight Management,” of the 363 R&D and marketing titles at food, beverage and nutritional companies that answered the question, “Do you think consumers falling into an overweight category are less, more, or equally as accepting of their own weight compared to five years ago?” some 44.9% said “more accepting,” and 23.7% said “equally accepting.”
There is some good news. Although both overweight (BMI ≥25 but ≤30) and obesity rates are much higher than in the 1976-1980 period, according to the CDC’s NHANES data, there was no recent significant change in the prevalence of obesity from 2003-2004 to 2005-2006, for either men or women2. Data from The NPD Group’s HealthTrack Service concurs. In 1995, 52.9% reported height and weight data that classified them as overweight/obese (BMI over 25), while 63.8% did so in 2002. However, survey results show rates holding somewhat steady since then, with 2009 figures at 64.2%. There also is evidence that gains in children’s obesity rates may be leveling3. The caveat, of course, is that the majority of Americans are above optimal weight.
The Blame Game
The politics of obesity has shifted into high gear. One question on the survey indirectly checks the food industry’s paranoia by asking, “Who or what do you think overweight consumers blame for their weight issues?” and six factors were listed. The highest-ranked reason, on which 21% of the 368 respondents said consumers placed a great deal of blame, was “Their own metabolic /genetic makeup that makes weight loss difficult.” Only 13% said they felt consumers placed a great deal of blame on “Food manufacturers for marketing foods and beverages that lead to weight gain.” (See Prepared Foods’ November 9, 2009, E-dition for more discussion, along with the chart “Who’s to Blame.” To find the article, type in “Manufacturers Weigh in on Weight Products” in the search field at www.PreparedFoods.com. Typing in “Prepared Foods E-dition Archives” brings up all issues.)
There are financial aspects to the obesity issue on many different levels. Obesity is a factor in many health conditions, from diabetes to cardiovascular disease, and, with the focus on health care costs, obesity is an “easy” target. Some also see it as a way to assist with governmental revenue. In 2008, New York Gov. David Paterson proposed, and then abandoned, a suggestion for an 18% soda tax. On September 1, 2009, Illinois imposed a tax increase from 1% to 6.25% on some candy (e.g., gum, breath mints and chocolate bars) and bottled soft drinks with added sweeteners or flavoring, such as iced tea and sports drinks, by reclassifying them from “food” to “general merchandise.” Adding in local taxes, this brings the tax rate to 14.5% in some municipalities. Supposedly, candies that contain flour or need refrigeration are not subject to the tax increase.
Support for such “junk food” or “fat” taxes extends beyond those wishing to increase tax revenue. In a 2009 report titled, “Local Government Actions to Prevent Childhood Obesity,” the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies suggests that “taxes on high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and drinks,” among other strategies, such as location of fast food restaurants and activity programs, could be used by local governments to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic.
In the 2009 PF Weight Management survey, a list of six statements about such taxes was presented, and respondents were asked whether they agreed with each one or not. (See chart, “A Taxing Situation.”) Some 55% said, “Even if it [the tax] did improve American diets, it should not be implemented, since it adds bureaucracy and/or interferes with personal choice,” and 43% said it would unfairly tax poorer Americans, who are disproportionately overweight.
The link between obesity and socieoeconomic status (SES) has long been established and described as a “powerful inverse relationship” by one frequently referenced study4. It suggests that not only could SES influence obesity, but also, obesity may help determine a person’s SES.
Some 47% of those surveyed (and slightly over half were in R&D) agreed with the statement, “If established, many products would be reformulated to avoid the ‘fat tax.’” This raises the question, “What is junk food?” Legislatures are perhaps taking an “I know it when I see it” attitude, but classifying some product formulations as “bad for weight management” and others as “good” is arbitrary and controversial.
Weight Management Formulations
Some may find it a bit ironic that Illinois’ “fat tax” would possibly be applied to Aldi’s no-calorie Fit & Active Lemonade, Nutra Trim’s Weight Management Chewing Gum (with green tea, L-carnitine and chromium), which says it was “designed to increase metabolism and help control cravings,” or to Annabelle Candy’s Skinny Hunk dietary nougat bar, which is low in fat and gluten-free. (Perhaps, if they add a bit of flour, they could assure tax avoidance.)
Some studies have linked calorie-containing beverage consumption with weight gain. For example, a 2009 review by Dennis, EA, et al.5 notes that such beverages are a significant contributor to increases in total calorie consumption among consumers in recent decades. Also, because beverages are less satiating than solid foods, this may lead to weight gain. That review, as well as other research, supports the use of lower-fat and/or artificially sweetened products for assistance in long-term weight management6.
The food industry has long been steeped in “food minus” products, that is, foods and beverages with no-/less-/reduced-fat, sugar, calories and so on. One question asked in both the 2008 and 2009 PF Weight Management surveys was, “Which of the following is your company interested in developing?” and 13 formulation types were listed. Little changed in one year: reduced-/low-fat products topped the list, with over half of respondents indicating their company’s interest in both years. Reduced-/low- sugar or calorie products were of interest by roughly 40% of respondents each, and almost one-third of those surveyed said their companies were interested in high-protein products.
The greatest change occurred (an increase from 19% to 24%) in the number of people saying their company was interested in products “for satiety/feeling of fullness.” (Again, see the November 9, 2009, E-dition article, “Manufacturers Weigh in on Weight Products” for a chart titled “Low Fat Still Rules.”)
The growing interest in products focused on satiety is in harmony with a 2008 Euromonitor report, “Trend Watch: Opportunities within Functional Weight Management Products.” “The market for weight management-positioned foods and beverages is undergoing a profound shift, from better-for-you or ‘lesser evil’ foods and beverages (i.e., those reduced in fat and/or sugar) towards more sophisticated functional offerings,” the reports notes. It argues that foods for weight management with “functional ingredients” may have greater appeal to many consumers than “lesser evil” foods, where some of their tastiest ingredients are removed, but still cost the same or more than their traditional counterparts. Instead, ingredient-enhanced foods offer innovation and “positive nutrition” to consumers.
The Euromonitor report classifies functional weight management products into three broad categories: those which suppress appetite and/or induce satiety, those which boost metabolism and those which inhibit digestion of macronutrients (e.g., fats, carbohydrates) or their conversion into body fat.
Factors leading to a feeling of satiety are complex and are both physiological and psychological. (See the “Website Resources” sidebar for a more in-depth article.) Euromonitor also notes that it is a research-supported fact that satiety is a conditioned reflex subject to visual and olfactory sensory inputs, as well as cultural and social contexts. Thus, by conveying the message (e.g., through brand names or labeling) that a product provides “lasting satisfaction” or “crave control,” for example, it may indeed create expectations for greater satisfaction, leading a consumer to potentially consume less.
Satiety, Metabolism Boosting and Digestion Inhibition
Euromonitor also notes that satiety-inducing ingredients can be used in combination to produce a synergistic effect and mentioned one branded ingredient that combines pea protein, chicory-derived inulin and oligofructose. Commercially, certain inulins and oligofructoses have been marketed for both their dietary fiber and prebiotic properties.
When the 2009 PF Weight Management survey asked, “What ingredient(s) or categories listed on the package ingredient statement do you believe the consumer would recognize as beneficial in a food or beverage product designed for weight loss?” the top ranked responses, at 67% and 63%, respectively, were “dietary fiber” and “whole grains or seeds.” (See chart “Ingredients for Weight Management.”)
A number of the ingredients listed in the survey fall into the “metabolism-boosting” category. Survey participants felt consumers would recognize their benefits, but far from equally. Some 44% said green tea would be recognized for its weight management benefits, 18% said “stimulants such as caffeine, theobromine.” Admittedly, caffeine is likely far more familiar to consumers than “theobromine.”
Other ingredients that Euromonitor identified as being appropriate for products that boost metabolism include conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3, both which are fatty acids. Some 27% of those in the 2009 PF Weight Management survey said consumers would recognize the weight management benefits of omega-3s vs. 5% for CLA. This is a bit surprising, when considering CLA has primarily been promoted for healthy body compositions, when compared to omega-3s, which are primarily known for cardiovascular, cognitive and certain other health conditions. One explanation is that omega-3s are more “mainstream” and benefit from an overall halo of health. In contrast, various suppliers of CLA just last year received a “thumbs up” from the FDA--in the form of a “no questions letter” to their self-affirmed GRAS status--meaning it opens its use for a wide variety of food. Other fats with research support behind them include medium-chain-triglycerides (MCTs) and DAG (1,3 diacylglycerol), which contains two rather than three fatty acids, and is said to be primarily utilized as an energy source rather than being stored as fat.
A number of the ingredients listed in PF’s survey are primarily helpful in the development of reduced-sugar, -fat or -calorie foods. They include high-intensity sweeteners, many now promoted with consumer brand names, and 44% of those surveyed said consumers would recognize their benefits. Others, such as polyols, polydextrose, hydrocolloids gums and resistant starch, are understood by product developers to be highly helpful in “lesser evil” products, but not necessarily recognized as such by non-food science consumers.
Lastly, Euromonitor’s third category of weight management ingredients consists of components that inhibit digestion of carbohydrates or fats or their conversion into body fat. Some are firmly in the realm of dietary supplements, such as chitosan. Others, such as chromium and hydroxycitric acid (HCA), L-carnitine and starch blockers, such as a commercially available white bean extract used as a starch blocker, have made moves into foods and beverages. Dietary fiber also falls into this category.
The bad/good news is that although excess weight continues to be a (or the) major health concern in North America, a plethora of options exist in the formulation and development of such products. pf
www.NutraSolutions.com -- Type in “Satiety: Feeling Full” in the search field for a 2009 article addressing satiety. The search words “weight management ingredients” (without quotes) finds articles on nutritional ingredients for this purpose
www.PreparedFoods.com -- Type in “weight management video” (without quotes) in the search field for a variety of archived presentations; many are on applied food science
www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/overweight/overweight_adult.htm -- Statistics on slowing rates of obesity
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2009. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Vol. 58, No. 27; www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/wk/mm5827.pdf.
3Cynthia L, Ogden, CL, et al. 2008. High body mass index for age among U.S. children and adolescents, 2003-2006. JAMA. 299:2401-2405.
4 Stunkard, AJ and Sørensen, TI.1993. Obesity and socioeconomic status--a complex relation. N Engl J Med. 329:1036-1037.
5 Dennis, EA, et al. 2009. Beverage consumption and adult weight management: a review. Eat Behav. 10:237-46.
6 Phelan, S, et al. 2009. Use of artificial sweeteners and fat-modified foods in weight-loss maintainers and always-normal weight individuals. Ing J Obes (Lond). Published online ahead of print 7/28/09.
7 Major, GC, et al. 2009. Calcium plus vitamin D supplementation and fat mass loss in female very low-calcium consumers: potential link with a calcium-specific appetite control. Br J Nutr. 101:659-63.
8 More, L, et al. 2008. Dairy intake and anthropometric measures of body fat among children and adolescents in NHANES. J Am Coll Nutr. 27:702-10.
9Samra, RA and Anderson, GH. 2007. Insoluble cereal fiber reduces appetite and short-term food intake and glycemic response to food consumed 75 min. later by healthy men. Am J Clin Nutr. 86:972-979.