Here's why the 'mid-calorie' food trend is a bad idea Reformulated processed foods are hardly the solution.

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.

Jan Cho

Jan was once a musician and, later, a marketing executive, but is now a mother of two who cares deeply about the quality of the food we eat, especially as it concerns our health and well-being. Favorite foods include vegetables, peanut butter and ice cream.

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5 thoughts on “<span class="entry-title-primary">Here's why the 'mid-calorie' food trend is a bad idea</span> <span class="entry-subtitle">Reformulated processed foods are hardly the solution.</span>”

  1. Watch out. Remember, it isn't what food companies taketh away, but rather what they replaceth with that usually includes flavor enhancers or sweetener substitutes, both of which induce hunger.

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  2. Humans crave foods as a way to attain the nutrients their bodies need. When foods are highly processed they're "empty" of these nutrients so humans stay "hungry" and will eat more as their bodies are relentless about getting what they need. Hunger isn't about a stomach being full or empty, it's about whether you're getting the nutrition you need.

    "Simple" clean foods, with little or no processing or preservatives are healthier because they contain the nutrients the human body needs. They're more "satisfying" for this reason, they fill the vitamin/mineral/trace elements, so "fill" people up.

    Add in the proper ratios of protein, fats and carbohydrates for your personal ancestry/heritage that your body has evolved to process "cleanly" and eat seasonally. When people consume even low calorie processed foods, those foods typically have added sugar along with the complex sugars the food contains from carbohydrates -- people miss the fact that sugar is sugar. A 190 calorie/2g fat/12g protein/36g carbohydrate "diet" frozen dinner is an excellent example -- take the word "carbohydrate" and replace it with "sugar" -- that's how your metabolism sees it. That meal is 72% sugar, 24% protein, and .04% fat -- overload your body with sugar and whatever is not needed immediately is then stored as fat. Protein and fat are converted to glycogen, and that has a huge metabolic difference in terms of health.

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  3. IMO what you eat and the condition it is in is more important that calories. Food is fuel for your body and we need to retrain our selves to see it that way so people can choose the fuel they need rather than see it as entertainment that has to be calorie monitored.

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  4. If you are counting calories, you are on a diet. I think we all know what to eat if we want to lose weight and what not to eat. It's simple. Eat less, eat low fat foods, that means cut out sweets. Don't fool yourself and be healthier. Eat fresh, non-processed foods and no alcohol or diet drinks or more than a glass of juice a day and we are bound to lose weight unless we don't move our bodies at all. Do something physical!

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  5. Oh My, hasn't anyone realized yet that counting calories is NOT a normal or natural way to eat! The act of counting calories is obsessive and can become quite dangerous to one's quality of life.
    Even public school personel are more concerned with calorie counts than they are if the kids are actually eating the foods prepared for them. Guess what, the majority of kids are not eating it---so all those Good calories end up in the trash!
    Think of food this way:
    Food provides for life and thus it should be enjoyed for it provides us with sustenence! However the over enjoyment.induglence in anything can ultimately affect one's health----mental health, emotion and physical too. In the same respect counting calories is not a natural way to eat and may imply deeper issues un dealt with, especially when they are counted by one who is not obese or severely overweight!

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