There's a new trend in healthy eating for what's known as mid-calorie foods, the Associated Press reports. Food companies are working to develop products that have fewer calories than the original versions but that also taste almost as good. With so many "diet" products having come and gone, companies now know that consumers won't eat it unless it tastes good, no matter how supposedly healthy for them. Mid-calorie foods look to achieve the right balance of flavor with fewer calories.
Hershey's introduced Simple Pleasures, a chocolate with 30% less fat, in June, Lay's rolled out new flavors of reduced-fat Kettle Cooked potato chips in July and Pepsi just released a reduced-calorie soda made with stevia in Australia. The U.S. version of Pepsi Next, which was introduced earlier this year and is made with a mix of artificial sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup, has half the calories of regular, CBS News reports.
"Shaving a few calories," says the Associated Press article, "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."
The mid-calorie trend comes at a time when food and beverage companies "are being blamed for the country's expanding waistlines." But reformulated processed foods are hardly the solution.
To begin with, many people may eat more of the mid-calorie snacks, desserts and drinks because they think they can. "It becomes a problem when people overestimate how much more they can eat of nonfat ice cream or low-calorie chips," Kelly Brownell, Director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told the Associated Press. Knowing that a food is a lesser version of the original, moreover, may induce a sense of deprivation that can make people want to eat more.
Another problem with the mid-calorie trend is its focus on, well, calories. There's a culture of "scientific eating" in America today, whereby people fixate on calories, grams and nutrients rather than simply eating good-quality food. But nutritional information, I believe, often only confuses or distracts us from making the right choices.
Our penchant for scientific eating, moreover, is exactly what fuels the processed foods industry, which happily and profitably formulates and re-formulates products to meet the specs of the latest health trend. Peel off a bit of cholesterol here, cut some fat over there, replace the high-fructose corn syrup with a sugar substitute, and voila, you have a newly healthified food.
Lastly, the calorie content of a food is not what makes it healthy or unhealthy. In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, Dean Ornish, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, writes: "The country is preoccupied with calories… Perhaps the biggest misconception is that as long as you lose weight, it doesn't matter what you eat. But it does… What you eat affects which diseases you may develop, regardless of whether you're thin or fat."
Similarly, as the New York Times recently reported and as we discussed, study after study has shown that "overweight and moderately obese patients with certain chronic diseases often live longer and fare better than normal-weight patients with the same ailments," and now some researchers believe that fitness more than low weight may be the key to health.
Likewise, it's the "fitness" or the quality of a food that matters more than its content of calories. Whether it's mid-calorie, low-calorie or full-calorie, the question to ask is, what's it made of? Hershey's Simple Pleasures chocolates are artificially flavored and made with 23 ingredients, Lay's 40% Less Fat Sun-Dried Tomato & Parmesan Kettle Cooked Chips are fried in "vegetable oils" extracted with chemical solvents and Pepsi Next contains three different artificial sweeteners – aspartame, acesulfame potassium and sucralose – in addition to high-fructose corn syrup.
As always, the best rule of thumb is to avoid processed foods, whatever the supposed health benefits touted on the package. As others have pointed out, genuinely healthy foods rarely have to announce their virtues. Unlike these newfangled diet products, they don't have anything to prove.