Business Insights estimates the U.S. and European diet food and beverage market at roughly $116.5 billion and growing, but it also has found that, even among products with a weight-management positioning, taste is the overriding factor influencing consumer preferences, even ahead of the product’s effectiveness at managing weight.

Some efforts at reducing consumers’ calorie consumption may, in fact, be backfiring to a degree. Technomic research finds nearly half of consumers (48%) indicate they now snack at least twice a day, compared with 25% in 2010. Restaurants, to capitalize on this snacking sentiment, are offering quick, portable, smaller-portioned and reduced-calorie options, a strategy that has led restaurants to capture 22% of consumers’ snacking occasions, sharply up from the 17% share just two years ago.

"Pressure from the nutritional disclosure legislation has prompted the foodservice industry to reduce calorie counts in meals,” explains Darren Tristano, Technomic executive vice president. “As a result, Americans are now more inclined to ‘graze’ throughout the day, seeking snacks that provide fuel between traditional meal parts."

This is not to say, however, that restaurants can ignore consumers’ healthier demands. Technomic found more than 33% of those polled expect to consume more healthful snacks in the coming year, suggesting an opportunity for restaurants to introduce weight-conscious and reduced-calorie options.

Per a study funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health, heart-healthy diets that reduce calorie consumption were shown to help overweight and obese adults achieve and maintain weight loss. The Preventing Overweight Using Novel Dietary Strategies (POUNDS LOST) researchers found similar weight loss after six months and two years among 811 overweight and obese adults between 30-70 assigned to four diets, which differed only in fat (20% or 40% of calories), protein (15% or 25% of calories) or carbohydrate content (35-65% of calories).  All had the same calorie-reduction goals and were low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in dietary fiber.

Participants lost an average of 13 pounds over six months and maintained a nine-pound weight loss over two years. Personalized calorie goals ranged from 1,200-1,400 per day, and the researchers found all of the diets improved the participants’ risk factors for cardiovascular disease at both six months and two years.

"These results show that, as long as people follow a heart-healthy, reduced-calorie diet, there is more than one nutritional approach to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight," said Elizabeth G. Nabel, M.D., director of the NHLBI. "This provides people who need to lose weight with the flexibility to choose an approach that they’re most likely to sustain -- one that is most suited to their personal preferences and health needs."

The benefits of a reduced-calorie diet can also be strengthened when combined with another trendy diet plan. Following a Mediterranean diet with fewer calories may help preserve memory, lower the risk of serious illness and even extend a healthy life span, say researchers at Sweden’s Sahlgrenska Academy in a paper appearing in the European journal AGE.

Further adding to the positive aura surrounding low-calorie dining, a team from the Netherlands’ Leiden University Medical Center analyzed 15 patients with type 2 diabetes on a diet of 500 calories a day for four months. The group found this low-calorie diet eliminated insulin dependence and reduced the amount of dangerous fats around the heart in obese patients with type 2 diabetes, and it did so even better than any prescribed medication. However, the researchers did caution patients to consult with their doctor before any such reduced-calorie approach, and the participant base was quite small.

So, what foods might assist consumer efforts to reduce calorie intake? A study in the February Nutrition Research finds men who consumed an egg-based breakfast ate significantly fewer calories (112 fewer) when offered an unlimited lunch buffet, compared to when they ate a carbohydrate-rich breakfast of equal calories. In fact, those who consumed eggs for breakfast were found to consume 18% fewer calories (400 fewer calories over the next 24 hours) throughout the day than when they ate a bagel breakfast of equal calories.

Manufacturers have long realized the potential of lower-calorie offerings, and recent weeks have seen a spate of new product announcements that capitalize on the trend. PepsiCo, for instance, aims to “fill a void” between Diet Pepsi and the regular version with Pepsi Next, a cola with 60 calories per can and 60% less sugar than a regular Pepsi. It joins an increasingly crowded low-calorie beverage market, with Dr Pepper 10’s 2011 success prompting Dr Pepper Snapple Group to augment the line with test runs of 10-calorie versions of some of its other brands, including A&W, RC and 7-Up. Pepsi Next, meanwhile, joins another semi-recent lower-calorie option in PepsiCo’s stable: Trop50, a low-calorie juice sweetened with stevia on track for $300 million in annual sales after three years in the marketplace.

Mars Inc. may not have such a low-calorie target for its candy lines, but the company has announced calorie limits on its chocolate products. As part of its “broad-based commitment to health and nutrition,” Mars plans to stop shipping any chocolate product that exceeds 250 calories by the end of 2013. Even McDonald’s, long a target of health advocates, is experimenting with lower-calorie options. In test markets since September, the hamburger chain has launched a Happy Meal with 20% fewer calories, with apple slices served with either a hamburger or Chicken McNuggets, plus a reduced portion of fries and fat-free chocolate milk (or 1% white milk). The healthier Happy Meal is expected to be available in the chain’s restaurants nationwide in April.

From the March 19, 2012, Prepared Foods E-dition.