Latest government statistics indicate nearly 70% of American adults and almost 32% of the country's school-age children and adolescents are either overweight or obese, with some projections forecasting 37% of adults could be classified as obese by 2013 and 43% by 2018.

Packaged Facts analyzed the range of foods and beverages introduced between 2005-2009, and somewhat contrary to what may seem to be one of the industry's biggest trends, it found the leading weight-management claim was "low calorie," which ranked 12th in 2009, with 541 package mentions. In fact, calorie information may not hold much importance in consumers’ minds. An NYU School of Medicine study examined the effect of calorie labeling upon purchase patterns. Teens, the study found, notice the calorie information at the same rate as adults, but they respond at a lower rate, similar to results of a prior NYU study of adult eating behavior.

Not that “low calorie” was unique in Packaged Facts analysis, “low fat" landed in 19th spot, with 369 citings. Among the weight-management claims, "low calorie" has led the pack for the past two years, taking over from "low fat," which had registered the most claims in weight-management products between 2005 and 2007. The "low carbohydrate" fad had nearly disappeared as of 2009, with only 69 package mentions.

In addition, Packaged Facts estimates the global weight-loss/management market (including diet foods and beverages, weight-loss programs and services, weight-loss drugs and natural therapies and surgical interventions) surpassed $26 billion in 2009. Of that, diet foods and beverages comprised the largest category, accounting for $18 billion -- 73% of worldwide sales.

Even if weight loss is not a primary claim on the package, however, manufacturers would be wise to keep weight management in mind when creating new products, if for no other reason than the potential of the market to expand beyond that $18 billion. Furthermore, the Packaged Facts data focused largely on "low in" claims, while the market is shifting toward functional ingredients to help consumers lose and maintain weight. While some are found in dietary supplements and over-the-counter weight management drugs, the notions of weight-managing ingredients is expanding, especially as new research discovers the weight-management potential inherent in fairly unexpected foods.

In a two-year weight-loss study, Sweden’s Karolinska Institute found milk drinkers, in fact, had an advantage over those who skipped the drink. Researchers found that adults who consumed two or more glasses of milk per day lost more weight after two years than those who had little or no milk or milk products. The milk drinkers lost an average of 6kg more.

Similarly, weight-management efforts would appear to benefit from tea. At Japan’s Kobe University, a mice study which appeared in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found regular consumption of tea could prevent weight gain caused by a “junk food diet” and also suppress damaging changes in the blood linked to fatty foods that may lead to type 2 diabetes. Both black and green teas were found to provide similar benefits.

A study published in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders found the addition of almonds to a low-calorie diet helped overweight consumers lose weight more effectively than a low-calorie diet high in complex carbohydrates. After six months, subjects consuming the almonds in their diet had greater reductions in weight, body fat, total body water and systolic blood pressure; they had a 62% greater reduction in body mass index, 50% greater reduction in waist circumference and 56% greater reduction in body fat compared with those on a low-calorie, complex-carbohydrate diet.

Regardless of the elements incorporated into weight-management efforts, consumers are going to have to realize the most important facet of weight loss: calories burned needs to outpace calories consumed. According to the International Food Information Council’s "Food & Health Survey," however, this message has yet to ingrain itself in Americans. Most Americans (58%) make no effort to balance the two, with only 28% increasing their physical activity on days they consume more calories. Making the challenge that much more difficult, 43% of Americans do not know how many calories they burn in an average day.

From the March 7, 2011, Prepared Foods E-dition