Weight management is at once a simple and a highly complex conundrum. While the continued leveling off of the American obesity uptrend is good news, and new science points to the greater-than-imagined roles that inactivity and sleep deficit play in weight gain, the reality is that weight management will continue to be largely an issue of diet for the average consumer.

How successful (or not) individuals are at managing their weight through diet is apparently hardwired in the brain, according to a study just published in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience. But the results of such hardwiring end up on the hips, belly, and backside when dieting is unsuccessful. Risks of a host of diseases and disease states also are escalated.

For this reason, developers of products for weight management end up consistently challenged. On one hand, they have to create foods and beverages to help the millions of overweight and obese persons overcome innate resistance to managing their weight, on the other, those products must be more desirable than any other product.

The aforementioned single-blind research (conducted by Pin-Hao Chen and colleagues at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire)studied the connections between the executive control and reward systems in the brain. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) results from a food-cue reactivity task “revealed…greater activity for food than control images.” They concluded “the ability to self-regulate a healthy body weight may be dependent on individual brain structure.” Short, dieting is extremely difficult because we love food too much.

Making healthy diet foods that “fool” us by being tasty and comforting favorites has always been a lofty goal for processors. A significant part of that conflict has been ruled by the belief that a diet food or beverage should focus on restriction of fat and avoidance of nutrient density. Such paradigms too often included limitations on flavor.

Decades of bench-to-shelf research by food and ingredient scientists has led to advances in the diet products arena. At the same time, nutrition science has fine-tuned our understanding of nutrients and metabolism to result in a convergence that is changing the face of weight management and diet. In part, this convergence has been responsible for a great deal of the slowing down of the obesity epidemic. But a slowdown is not a stop, and the number of overweight/obese persons still is staggeringly high.

Food, Not Pills

Obesity is behind many disease states—heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease and certain types of cancer—as well as an indirect cause of blindness, amputations decreased mobility, Alzheimer’s, and depression. All of these tax our healthcare system and productivity to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. There is no underestimating the havoc wrought in a nation in which two out of every three people are overweight or obese.

To the average American, weight management is about food, not pills. Earlier this year, consumer behavior research group Mintel reported that “many Americans aren’t so quick to jump on the latest fad bandwagon.” According to Mintel’s research, Americans instead are “adopting a sensible attitude towards dieting,” and noted that 91% of those polled believe a “well-rounded” diet is of more use than such products as weight-control tablets.

According to the research group’s extrapolations, 55% of US consumers are “currently trying to lose, maintain, or gain weight through diet.” The study also estimated that 44% of women aged 18-34 are “most likely to be trying to lose weight by dieting compared to an average of one third (32%) of Americans.” (Men, the researchers determined, were “most likely to say they have never dieted for weight management”, at a rate of 42% versus an overall average of 26% of all Americans.)

The Mintel research, however, also revealed strong ambivalence among American consumers when it comes to diet products. While the study found that “concern over the healthiness of diet foods and drinks, as well as diets in general, is high” with 77% of consumers agreeing that “diet products are not as healthy as they claim to be,” more than six in 10 of those consumers also admitted they believe that “most diets are not actually healthy.”

Still, 72% of those asked in the Mintel poll agreed that “dieting is worth the effort to achieve their ideal weight.” The caveat with diets in general, per Mintel’s research, is that more than two-thirds of the respondents admitted that “it is difficult to stick with a diet long-term.”

Dovetailing with the Chen study, Mintel’s research revealed that “for the majority of Americans, temptation can prove too much.” According to the group, “80% of US consumers acknowledge that they try to eat healthily but some indulgent foods are just too tempting.”

What Consumers Want

Restriction of fat and avoidance of nutrient density ruled diet formulations for so long, it was inevitable that change would only come with a generation of nutrition, food, and ingredient scientists open to challenging those sacred cows. Increasingly, the message has filtered out into mainstream America that the relationship between normal dietary fat intake and disease is not as definitive as was once believed.

Perhaps the biggest shift has been in the way nutritionists, and the consumers they serve, understand dietary fat, especially saturated fat. The war against dietary fat first shifted about 20 years ago with the recognition of healthful fats, specifically from olive oil and nut oils that are hallmarks of vegetarian/vegan diets and the Mediterranean Diet. These fats, along with increasingly popular healthful oils from sources as diverse as avocados, algae, grapeseed, and others, are commonly positioned as fat sources that actually help keep people from getting fat.

From a nutrition and health standpoint, fat no longer is a dietary “bad guy.” Last year, we reported on how, after more than 30 years, the USDA’s Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee declared that, “[A]vailable evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol.”

In last year’s report, Roger Clemens, DPh, an adjunct professor of Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Sciences within the USC School of Pharmacy’s International Center for Regulatory Science (and a member of the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee), pointed out that “low-fat diets have not been shown to effectively lead to weight loss.”

Citing the National Institutes of Health “Women’s Health Initiative” study that followed more than 20,000 women on low-fat diets for an average of seven years, Clemens noted that, “They weighed only one pound less than the controls.” Still, with restricting calories as the paradigm of most diets, at more than twice the caloric density of protein or carbohydrates, fat typically is the first nutrient to go.

For product developers, the solution to this dichotomy is to recognize that the doors are open to a “happy equilibrium” that allows for the use of the three primary macronutrients—fat, protein, and carbohydrates—to create healthful, flavorful foods with calories than comparable products designed strictly for indulgence.

With most consumers aware that moderation is the key to an effective, long-term diet and weight management plan, the goal is to make those products that support that moderation.

Surveying shoppers who are specifically seeking many weight- and satiety-related benefits for its September 2016, report “A Global Look at Functional Food Attitudes,” research group Health Focus International Inc. found that more than 40% of global shoppers “are extremely or very concerned about overweight/obesity.” The study also found that 61% “believe that dietary changes can help to treat or avoid overweight/obesity.”

The Health Focus study also revealed that six in 10 shoppers “are extremely or very interested in foods and drinks that can help to manage weight, burn fat or calories, and increase metabolism.” More than half (54%) reported being “interested in products that can keep them feeling full longer so they don’t get hungry.” Moreover, 43% of shoppers are “proactive in selecting foods to manage their weight” and 22% of shoppers say they are “confused about the food choices they have to make to lose weight.”

The 2016 Prepared Foods Magazine Ingredients for Weight Management Survey

Each year, Prepared Foods magazine and BNP Media’s Market Research Division reach out to product developers and manufacturers for our annual R&D Trends: Weight Management study. Through this study, we share detailed information on trending weight management ingredients and how they’re being applied in formulations.

The primary objectives of the study are to identify common weight-control products being developed and marketed; to identify the nutraceutical and nutritional ingredients most commonly used in, or being focused on for future use, the development of foods and beverages to lose, manage, or maintain weight; and to obtain a detailed picture of how important such ingredients are to the food and beverage industry.

(For the complete write-up and analysis of this year’s study, complete with charts and graphs, please visit us online at www.PreparedFoods.com.)

In this year’s survey, we asked processors of weight-targeting products what primary issues they contend with in developing foods and beverages for weight control. The nine most common issues were, in order: Clean Label/Natural Ingredients and Taste/Flavor in a tie at the top. These were closely followed by Marketing/Communicating with Customers and Health Risk/Side Effects. Sugar/Sweeteners landed in the middle, with Balancing Taste with Functionality, Cost, FDA Labeling, and Portion Balance finishing out the list.

In dealing with the difficulties cited in this list, comments regarding the Clean Label/Natural trend ran the gamut from basics—“It’s difficult to find natural ingredients to substitute for medical needs”—to a respondent from one of the largest global food companies pointing out that it’s especially hard to find ingredients with “GRAS status for children under the age of 4.”

Change Is Good

Key changes and observations noted in this year’s Ingredients for Weight Management survey begin with breaking down products into 16 categories. The survey team was able to fine-tune just what types of items processors are currently making or have in development.

As in previous years, two-thirds (66%) of respondents noted they are currently, or plan to, research/develop/market “health-targeting foods.” Of these, 86% are focusing on foods, 42% on beverages, and 20% on supplements. (The total exceeds 100% because some processors are working on more than one of those types of products.)

While nearly three quarters (73%) are working within the more general “health targeting” category, 38% are putting their efforts specifically into “weight management” products, and almost as many—36%—are focusing on digestive health. Satiety (giving that feeling of fullness with fewer calories) came in at nearly a third (30%), and almost a fifth of developers were going straight to “weight loss” as a target.

There have been some interesting shifts revealed in the types products chosen by developers to appeal to the weight management market. Among Specific Weight-Control Products, while Bars and Meal Replacers for Weight Management dipped to 33% from last year’s 36%, falling from the No. 1 position to No. 6. Bars and Meal Replacers also fell a third from No. 1 among the Weight Loss Products at 44% to No. 4 at 32%.

Liquid Meal Replacers were at the bottom (21% for 8th place) last year and nearly doubled to 41%, thereby becoming a top choice for Weight Management. Meals in this category also rose significantly, from 26% last year (5th place) to 41% this year, tying with Liquid Meal Replacers for the No. 1 spot. Savory Snacks, too, rose significantly, at 36% over last year’s 28% in products targeting Weight Management specifically.

The Weight Loss Products category saw some big shake-ups: Meals experienced a complete reversal, going from the bottom last year at a mere 17% to top choice this year of more than half of processors (53%). Perhaps the huge leap in quality, variety, and convenience that ready-to-make/eat meals and meal kits have undergone in the last few years, coupled with the continued decrease in cooking from scratch, are behind this paradigm shift. Either way, the meal format is one developers should keep an eye on.

Sweet Snacks also took a jump up back up toward previous levels after last year’s drop to 22%. They rose to nearly a third (32%). While most of the remaining items in this group generally stayed in the same positions as last year, all except Dietary Supplements picked up the points that Bars/Meal Replacers and Liquid Meal Replacers lost to rise several percentage points each.

Fill ’Er Up

As noted, products for Satiety jumped from last year when such items only caught the attention of a fifth of processors (21%) to nearly a third (30%) this year. Again, full Meals led the Satiety train in a tie with Bars and Meal Replacers at 42%—almost double last year’s 25%. And Dairy Beverages and Liquid Meal Replacers each more than doubled last year’s showing of 17% at 39% and 35%, respectively.

While all items in the Satiety category this year were up except Sweet and Savory Snacks, the real outlier was Dietary/Nutritional Supplements. Barely a blip at 8% in 2015, these products found favor in 2016 with nearly a fifth of processors, at 19%.

As a category, satiety is a platform of unlimited possibilities for product developers. This is because, when formulated carefully, fat, protein, and carbohydrates all can serve to curb hunger for long periods of time.

Dairy, nuts, and eggs all have demonstrated strong satiety capacity, not only in spite of but because of their concentrated calories from protein and fat. Carbohydrates in the form of resistant starches, oligosaccharides, and fibers, too, have demonstrated abilities to stave off hunger between meals for longer periods of time than comparable diets without those ingredients.

Resistant starches, oligosaccharides, and fibers also play a strong role in digestive health and new to this year’s survey was the category of Digestive Health-related Products. Meals made a strong showing here as well, albeit in a three-way tie (35% each) for the top position with Dairy Beverages or Shots and Sweet Snacks. Here’s where Non-Dairy Beverages or Shots made their strongest showing, at almost a third (32%). Bars and Meal Replacers also made a good showing among the choices for specific weight-control products in Digestive Health at 30%.

Ingredients that Work

With satiety and digestive health shifting the focus from fat and calories when it comes to weight-managing products, developers confirmed that fibers remain their ingredient class of choice. The needle didn’t move from last year to this, with 71% of developers maintaining its No. 1 status.

Whole Grains/Heritage Grains/Seeds and Natural Caloric Sweeteners held their respective No. 2 (65%) and No. 3 (63%) positions as the carbohydrate ingredients of choice for processors. Whereas Polysaccharides and Gums remained in fourth place, these ingredients saw a healthy jump in interest to 45% compared with last year’s 37%.

As a comeback kid, Resistant Starch was hard to beat in the Carbohydrate-Derived Ingredients class. After 2015’s big drop to below 20% from 40% in 2014, the starch that acts like a fiber in the body but a flour in formulations popped back up to 29%. Oligosaccharides rose slightly, from 19% last year to 21% this year. Lignins, however, almost fell off the chart, dropping from 13% to 4%.

Resistant starch is inherent in a number of foods naturally. These include corn, beans, grains, potatoes, bananas, and some—although not all—root vegetables. One study, “Soluble Dietary Fiber Decreased Hunger and Increased Satiety Hormones in Humans When Ingested with a Meal,” published last May in Nutrition Research, demonstrated that digestion-resistant maltodextrin can “impact satiety by decreasing hunger, prolonging satiation, and/or increasing peripheral satiety signals.” The mechanism was believed to reside in the impact of the resistance to digestion, affecting the hunger and satiety hormones.

This followed decades of research on high-amylose maize starch that demonstrates an ability to reduce hunger and caloric intake through multiple mechanisms: chemical (again, through impact on hunger and satiety hormones) and mechanical, by acting as a fiber in the body, providing bulk and transit time decreasing digestive.

Resistant starches such as these can be of special value to product developers in that they are easy to incorporate into existing formulations. They work especially well in comfort foods such as baked goods, smoothies, and rich sauces. It must also be stressed that these qualities are not typical of all food fibers.

Inulin continues to be among the forefront of the oligosaccharides that processors have taken notice of. Also trending recently is galacto-oligosaccharide, a medium-chain fiber that has strong prebiotic properties. In clinical studies, it has demonstrated a range of proven benefits, even when used in comparatively low amounts.

Pres and Pros

Another way fibers resistant to digestion help with weight management is in their prebiotic nature. By waiting until they hit the lower intestine to ferment and break down, they provide food for the beneficial probiotic bacteria that colonize our digestive tract. It has been shown that a healthy microbiome can lead to a reduction in insulin resistance and blood sugar regulation.

Both human and animal studies have revealed altered gut microbiota make-up and distribution is evident in obesity. While a case for cause versus effect has yet to be made, animal studies in which populating the lower g.i. of obese subjects with the bacteria from lean subjects led to weight loss made headlines a few years ago. Similar experiments with human subjects have yet to yield definitive results.

A meta-analysis of 25 trials published last spring in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition moved the needle further along the “probiotics for weight management” continuum. The analysis, “Effect of probiotics on body weight and body-mass index,” assessed the “efficacy of probiotic therapies on body weight and BMI (body mass index).”

Although the average weight loss was small, authors Zhang, Wu, and Fei, of Taizhou People’s Hospital in Tizhou, China, concluded that, “Consuming probiotics could reduce body weight and BMI, with a potentially greater effect when multiple species of probiotics were consumed, the duration of intervention was ≥8 weeks, or [if] the subjects were overweight.”

Development of extremely hardy live and active probiotics able to withstand the high temperatures and low pHs of food processing has made it possible for those ingredients to be incorporated into multiple products. Processors have been taking advantage of this with an increasingly diverse variety of probiotic foods and beverages. Products already on the shelves boasting live cultures include hot beverages, chocolate, baked goods, hot cereals, and high-acid juices.

In the Prepared Foods survey, nearly two-thirds (61%) of food and beverage developers indicated they are using or plan to use probiotics in their formulations. This was a large increase over last year’s 50%. Most Americans still get their probiotics through cultured dairy products such as yogurt, kefir, and cheese. And the positive effects of dairy products on weight management are well established.

Among those weight-directed food and beverage makers in the Prepared Foods survey who said they currently work or plan to work with protein/protein-derived ingredients, dairy proteins are used by 70%—a significant jump over last year.

But Non-Soy Plant Proteins made an extra-strong showing, with nearly six in 10 processors turning to such sources as rice, potatoes, and peas for their protein. The hypoallergenic and typically non-GMO nature of these ingredients allows them to fulfill multiple trend points on today’s consumers’ wish lists.

Animal Proteins (not from dairy but including eggs) figured surprisingly strongly in this year’s survey. They came in as the third-most used protein source at 56%. Soy Proteins, once the mainstay of plant proteins, were used by just under half of respondents at 48%. Enzymes and Amino Acids were used by our respondents in 32% and 29% of formulations, respectively—similar to last year’s rankings.

Favored Fats

In addition to the more usual carbs and proteins, processors of weight-targeting products also are putting functional lipids and other health-related ingredients to good use. Omega fatty acids have been studied for decades due to the wealth of health benefits research continues to uncover. Heart health, diabetes management, immunity boosting, and mitigation of asthma, hypertension, and depression all have pushed omegas closer to panacea status. Add weight management to that as well. Some studies are showing that, through tempering inflammation, omega fatty acids might just aid in managing weight (if not direct weight loss) through control of the metabolic disruptions secondary to overweight/obesity.

Among such healthful lipids, Plant-based Omegas in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) from sources such as flax, chia, hemp, and other seeds, grains, as well as Vegetable Oils and Nuts tied for most favored by processors. Taking percentage points away from last year’s No. 1, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the two forms of omega 3s tied at 48%. This was a huge increase over 2015’s 32%.

EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), too, enjoyed a significant increase from last year’s 32% to 45%. Easily at the heart of this is the availability of high-EPA oil derived from algae. Other omega fatty acid sources and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid, figured separately) were up at 44% and 41%, respectively. The same was true for medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), proving trend-spotters correct as they were taken up by nearly a third of processors (30%).

CoEnzyme Q-10, while not directly a weight-management ingredient, is a powerful heart-health component. It can be an advantage to weight-management formulations by enhancing the body’s ability to generate energy. Last year, only 24% of processors had it on their radar. This year, more than a third of processors—34%—claimed to have their eye on it.

Herbs and Spices

Botanical ingredients for weight management have been regenerating strong interest among product developers as bench science puts traditional remedies to rigorous examination. New weight management ingredient systems are coming from sources as simple as capsaicin compounds extracted from chili peppers, and even common fruits.

For example, recent research that shows that some of the phytochemicals in raspberries, such as ellagic acid, have a positive metabolic effect. Solutions also are being drawn from newly rediscovered sources such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. Such solutions call upon centuries of anecdotal evidence based on application of botanicals used as either primary ingredients or in combination. Such is the case with one new formulation made from extracts of turmeric (Curcuma longa), moringa leaves (Moringa oleifera), and leaves of the curry plant (Murraya koenigii).

Capsaicin-derived compounds have been demonstrating particular benefits as “metabolic synergizers.” This class of alkaloids has been shown to act as thermogenic (revving up metabolism) and enhancement of lipolysis (fat breakdown) enhancers. So, too, has Salacia chinensis extract. Leaves from the polyphenol-rich Southeast Asian shrub were shown, in a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study, to decrease the absorption of glucose.

A variety of botanical/botanical-derived ingredients are used by those working with such ingredients, as reported in the Prepared Foods magazine annual survey. Spices/Spice Extracts and Natural Sweeteners were those being most commonly used (56% each). Green Tea and Green Tea Extracts, and Flax/Chia/Hemp were close behind at 54% and 53%, respectively.

Botanical Stimulants (think yerba maté, guarana, green coffee beans and other sources of caffeine, as well as theobromine, theophylline and other xanthines) jumped from a 30% last year to 41% this year. Processors using Ginger and Ginseng numbered 40% and 26%, both similar to last year. Turmeric merited its own mention in this year’s survey due to its big splash on the functional ingredient trend stage, and more than a third—36%—of processors indicated they are or will be using it in their formulations.

Vitamins, Minerals…and the Rest

Among respondents using vitamins or minerals in developing healthful foods for consumers seeking to regulate their weight, vitamin D turned out to be an incredibly popular ingredient. More than eight out of 10 respondents expressed their interest in the hormone-like, lipid-soluble vitamin. This is likely because the ingredient has been under the microscope in hundreds of studies in recent years. The range of benefits now being recognized from vitamin D is nearly as promising as demonstrated by omega 3 fatty acids.

Calcium and Vitamins B1-6 and B12 also showed strongly, at 74% and 69%, respectively. Choline rose significantly over last year, climbing to almost a third of processors at 29% over last year’s 21%. Chromium, too, rose from 20% to 28% as more research indicates it could have some insulin-controlling effects. Antioxidants still have “legs,” landing at 67% of respondents showing interest. And, while Microalgae and similar ingredients such as seaweed, spirulina, and fucoxanthin held at 35%, Sugar Alcohols leaped up to almost half of processors (45%) saying they are using or intend to use them. Millennials have shown themselves to be less predisposed to turn their noses at “semi-artificial” ingredients such as some of the sugar alcohols, which could be responsible for this sharp uptick.

As in previous surveys, the target audience for this year’s Prepared Foods magazine Ingredients for Weight Management Survey consisted of subscribers to Prepared Foods who work for food and beverage manufacturers or in the foodservice industry. They were further drawn from companies declaring that they are currently, or eventually plan to, develop or market weight-management, weight-loss and/or satiety-related foods, beverages, or dietary supplements.

Selection was via systematic random sample from the domestic circulation (on an Nth name basis) and the method was through the Web. This year’s incentive prizes consisted of one American Express gift card valued at $100 and six valued at $50. These were awarded to seven randomly selected participants. All closed-ended numerical data are tabulated using SPSS (a statistical software package). Open-ended questions are either summarized, coded, or included as written by respondents, as appropriate.

Sample sizes varied for each question due to “skip logic,” data cleaning, or missing responses, and some totals did not equal 100% due to rounding or for questions where multiple answers were possible. Prepared Foods magazine editors and staff wish to thank all those who participated and we look forward to your participation next year.

Originally appeared in the December, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as New Paradigm.