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Mid-calorie snacks make dieting tastier

- Associated Press - Monday, October 8, 2012

Nonfat cheese that tastes like plastic. Low-calorie soda that leaves a bitter aftertaste. Sugar-free brownies that crumble like Styrofoam.

Dieters have learned an important lesson: When you take the fat and calories out of your favorite treats, you sometimes say goodbye to the taste too.

But snack brands like Dreyer's/Edy's ice cream, Hershey's chocolate and Lay's potato chips are trying to solve this age-old dieter's dilemma by rolling out so-called mid-calorie goodies that have more fat and calories than the snacks of earlier diet crazes, but less than the original versions. They're following the lead of soda companies like Pepsi and Dr Pepper that introduced mid-calorie drinks last year.

It's hard to isolate sales of mid-calorie snacks since they also usually have reduced fat, or other healthy attributes like reduced sodium. But sales of all foods and drinks in which the amount of things like fat, sugar, salt, carbohydrates have been actively reduced during production have risen 16 percent to $51.72 billion since 2006, according to research firm Euromonitor International.

The mid-calorie trend is hitting at a time when companies that make sugary and salty treats are being blamed for the country's expanding waistlines. The problem is that the same things that make snacks taste good — sugar, salt, calories — also make them fattening. And many Americans don't want to sacrifice taste at snack time. Shaving a few calories enables companies to market their cakes, cookies and chips as healthier without the stigma of bad taste that goes along with some low-fat products.

It's just the kind of marketing that might attract Monica Olivas. She said she wants to lead a healthy lifestyle, including curbing her fat and calorie intake as much as possible. But most low-fat foods just don't appeal to her.

"Sometimes companies go too far and take out all the fat — and all the flavor," said Ms. Olivas, a 29-year-old recruiter from Pico Rivera, Calif.

The mid-calorie trend is a toned-down version of the "light" craze that started in the 1990s. Back then, "low fat" or "no fat" was all the rage. But the products often fizzled.

For instance, McDonald's rolled out the McLean Deluxe, a low-fat burger, in 1991. But the burger, which was made, in part, with seaweed, had dismal sales. It disappeared from restaurants within five years.

"Originally, a lot of the diet stuff just wasn't good," said Richard George, chair of the department of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "People would say you could throw away contents and eat the box. But they've gotten better."

The new era of diet food started in the last decade. In 2007, companies began offering 100-calorie packs of popular snacks like Oreos cookies and Twinkies cakes. That's when brands started putting their focus on reducing calories — without any flavor change.

Turns out, there's some science behind all this calorie slashing. Nutritionists say it's not necessary to cut out all the "junk" foods in your cupboard or to take all the fat or calories out of them.

Reducing a nominal number of calories in your diet each day — even from that morning coffee run or afternoon visit to the vending machine for chips — is an effective way to battle obesity, said David Levitsky, professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University.

He said "if you typically have a 200-calorie cookie and you have a 160-calorie cookie instead" it won't make you hungrier at the next meal. And since obesity can be caused by as few as 20 excess calories a day, Mr. Levitsky said cutting a few at each meal can make a big difference.

In order for that to work, however, you have to eat the snacks in moderation. It becomes a problem when people overestimate how much more they can eat of nonfat ice cream or low-calorie chips, said Kelly Brownell, a nutritionist at Yale University.

"If consumption of ice cream and potato chips does not increase and people eat somewhat better versions, the outcome will be good," Ms. Brownell said.

First, companies have to convince dieters that their mid-calorie snacks are not only healthy, but tasty too.

With that in mind, Hershey's in June introduced Simple Pleasures, chocolate with 30 percent less fat. A serving size of six pieces equals 180 calories and 8 grams of fat — that's 30 calories and 5 grams of fat less than the original Hershey's chocolate bar. The company is hoping the deficit is enough to lure chocolate lovers who want to eat healthier.

"We're hearing more and more that customers want healthier options as a balanced lifestyle becomes a more prevalent way of living," spokeswoman Anna Lingeris said.

Similarly, Lay's in July rolled out two new flavors of its Kettle Cooked potato chips with 40 percent less fat. The brand, which fries chips in small batches so as to use less oil than the continuous frying process for regular chips, introduced "Applewood Smoked BBQ" and "Sun-Dried Tomato and Parmesan."

The company said it was able to lower the calories and fat without sacrificing taste: Regular Kettle Cooked chips have 160 calories and 9 grams of fat, while the reduced-fat versions have 130 calories and 6 grams of fat.

"The strategy behind mid-calorie offerings is finding the happy space between zero fat and regular products," said Tony Matta, vice president of marketing for Frito Lay, which makes Lay's chip brands.

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