Portion control

May 04, 2007|By Los Angeles Times

One of the easiest ways to eat more healthfully is simply to eat less. With 100-calorie snack packs, consumers get a little boost of self-control, and manufacturers don't need to change recipes.

It's no small feat to un-junk junk foods, but here's a quick guide through the latest in healthful snacking - plus some hidden pitfalls: The 100-calorie-pack strategy helps us restrict our calorie intake because we're surprisingly susceptible to packaging, says Penn State nutritionist Barbara Rolls.

In a 2004 experiment, when volunteers in her lab were handed big bags of chips for an afternoon snack, they scarfed down significantly more than when they had small bags. But the big eaters didn't compensate at dinner: Munching from a 6-ounce bag led people to eat about 140 calories more for snack and dinner combined than did snacking out of a 1-ounce bag.

Switching fats

With all the recent fuss about trans fats - notoriously linked to cholesterol problems and heart disease - and new trans-fat product labeling requirements in 2006, food manufacturers have begun substituting those partially hydrogenated oils and fats with trans fat-free oils that will give food a similar texture and shelf life.

But trans-fat free doesn't mean low-calorie - or even fat-free, says Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. And it doesn't magically make potato chips healthful.

Reducing fats

Some product developers forego high-fat frying altogether, and instead are creating baked products, which require less fat overall.

For example, Anuradha Prakash, a food scientist at Chapman University in California, partnered with a former student to develop Pizzettos, a baked snack free of saturated and trans-fats sold in Los Angeles schools.

Another lower-fat production method involves puffed air, Prakash says - cooking a grain mixture with a small bit of oil and a lot of water under high pressures. As the mixture shoots through a small opening, the water vaporizes, leaving a crispy product with lots of little air bubbles and relatively little fat.

Studies have shown that Americans tend to eat the same weight and volume of food every day, but not necessarily the same number of calories. That means big-volume foods such as fruits and vegetables might actually satisfy with fewer calories than denser foods such as pretzels or chocolate.

Rolls' lab recently tested this with puffy snack foods. Volunteers in the experiment received bags of either Cheetos Puffs or its denser version, Cheetos Crunchy, and were told to eat as much as they liked.

People ended up eating a bigger volume of Puffs than Crunchy Cheetos. Although much of that volume was air, they still felt just as satisfied afterward - and they ate about 70 fewer calories with the puffy snacks.

Natural vs. organic

In 2005, some 571 new snack food products hit the shelves with the word "natural" or "organic" on the package - nearly twice as many as in 2001. Natural ingredients and organic origins can help ease the guilt of shoppers drawn to indulgent snacks.

Sales of Kettle Foods' Kettle potato chips (with "no artificial whatchamacallits") jumped 28 percent in 2005, for example, while overall potato chip sales grew by only 1 percent, according to Packaged Facts' analyses. Similarly, sales of Hain Celestial's Garden of Eatin' organic tortilla chips grew by 11 percent, compared with 0.5 percent for tortilla chips overall.

"These labels can give products a health halo," says Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think and director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. At worst, they can lead shoppers into thinking the snacks are lower in calories.

Whole grains and high fiber

The super-low-carb Atkins craze may be waning, but whole-grain and high-fiber labels are still magnets for health-savvy shoppers. In 2001, 33 new "high fiber" snack products were introduced, and by 2005 that number had more than tripled.

The Whole Grains Council recently allowed manufacturers to use new council-certified labels to prominently display the number of grams of whole grains products contain. Nabisco's whole-grain line includes Chips Ahoy! cookies, Fig Newtons and Wheat Thin crackers. In December, Snyder's of Hanover introduced whole-grain pretzels, tortilla chips and other snack foods.

Depending on the type of snack, switching to whole grains can be challenging, says Mary Ellen Carmire, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. The same parts of the grain that add vitamins and fiber can also change the taste and texture of food.

Corn is an easy whole grain to use, Carmire says, so manufacturers are rolling out more whole grain tortilla chips. Wheat is more challenging. Traditional whole wheat has a different texture, dark color and a strong taste. Milling companies are experimenting with pulverizing the grains to get a flour that's milder, softer and whiter than traditional whole wheat flour.

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