Mid-Calorie Machinations

Snack, food companies following beverage companies on trend

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- Dieters have learned an important lesson: When you take the fat and calories out of your favorite treats, you sometimes have to 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 the dieter's dilemma by rolling out mid-calorie goodies that have more fat and calories than the snacks of earlier diet crazes but less than the original versions, reported the Associated Press.

They are following the lead of soda companies like Pepsi and Dr Pepper that introduced mid-calorie drinks last year.

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 bad taste stigma associated with some low-fat products.

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.

Lay's in 1998 introduced Wow fat-free potato chips that use fat substitute Olestra. But the ick factor trumped healthiness when the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) said the chips had to come with a warning that Olestra may cause abdominal cramping, loose stools and that it inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. The FDA dropped the requirement for the label in 2004 after studying the matter. The chips were renamed "Light," but sales have not recovered.

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.

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

Hershey's in June introduced Simple Pleasures, chocolate with 30% less fat. A serving size of six pieces equals 180 calories and eight grams of fat--30 calories and five 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.

Hershey's developed the product after consumer research revealed that the No. 1 barrier for people to buy chocolate is the "perceived negative health benefits," spokesperson Anna Lingeris told AP.

Lay's in July rolled out two new flavors of its Kettle Cooked potato chips with 40% 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 "Smokehouse BBQ" and "Cooked Sun-Dried Tomato & Parmesan."

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

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

But marketing can be key, said the report. Dreyer's/Edy's in May rolled out an ad campaign that emphasizes that Slow Churned ice cream has half the fat and one third of the calories of regular ice cream. When Dreyer's/Edy's began selling Slow Churned ice cream in 2004, the company labeled the product "light." But ice cream buyers didn't take to the word, and the company stopped advertising the brand using it. The company eventually stopped advertising the product altogether after 2007, although it still sold it in stores.

"`Light' used to be a word that consumers had a lot of negative perception ... because of the taste experience," Eiseman told AP. "For ice cream, taste is king, first and foremost ... they'd rather have great taste and half the fat, rather than OK taste and no fat."

The new packaging and ad campaign for the product, which has about 120 calories and 4.5 grams of fat compared with 150 calories and eight grams of fat in regular Dreyer's mint chocolate chip, has the tagline "1/2 the Fat, 1/3 Fewer Calories than Regular Ice cream."

The company acknowledges that 4.5 grams of fat is not quite "half" of eight grams of fat, but Dreyer's/Edy's brand manager Jen Eiseman said the marketing campaign took a the liberty of rounding in order to focus on the healthier aspects of the slow-churn ice cream.

"There's been a shift culturally from extreme dieting ... and giving up food altogether," Eiseman said. "Now it's not about giving things up, but finding healthier ways of having it all."