While citizens of countries around the world may look to the United States as a model for a great life, there is at least one aspect of the American dream that should not be valued: Most Americans have embraced an obesogenic lifestyle, characterized by heavy reliance on unhealthy meals and snacks, excessive food consumption, and physical inactivity. Nearly 75% of Americans are either overweight or obese. In fact, the United States now has more obese citizens (nearly 40%) than overweight ones (34.2%).

European consumers shop more frequently for food than their American counterparts.In light of statistics such as these, it’s hardly surprising that the Institute of Food Technologists’ Wellness 11 conference held this spring in Chicago devoted one of its three tracks to the topic of weight management. The conference’s other two tracks—consumer lifestyles & demographics and health issues—addressed the subject of obesity from a variety of perspectives while covering an array of additional topics ranging from muscle health to sodium intake.

The U.S. government has made several attempts to curb the upward trend of overweight and obese Americans through laws and public policy. These include banning trans fats, imposing higher taxes on foods made with refined grains and added sugars, mandating calorie counts on food labels and restaurant menus, and developing new Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years. In addition, the American food industry has tried to aid weight loss and management by offering artificial sweeteners, reduced-fat versions of popular foods, 100-calorie packs, and front-of-package labeling. Neither the tactics by government nor those by the food industry has had a positive effect.

Sessions on weight management at Wellness 11 focused not on the failure of U.S. methods to raise the weight consciousness of Americans but rather on the varied European approaches to diet and nutrition that have kept Europeans from expanding to the size of their Western counterparts. During the general session “European Approaches for Reducing Obesity,” presenter Kees de Gooijer of the Food & Nutrition Delta Foundation emphasized that the main difference between Europeans and Americans is the access to and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. Regular consumption of fruits and vegetables is seen by most nutrition experts as integral to weight loss and weight management. De Gooijer pointed out that many areas in the United States have been described as food deserts because of limited or no access to fresh produce.

Surprisingly, there is no official standardized approach to address obesity in the European Union. De Gooijer indicated that a method that works in one country would likely not work in another because of disparities in cultures and attitudes. For example, preaching and lecturing about healthy eating habits have been the primary methods to change consumer behavior in Sweden and Germany; however, these approaches would never work in the Netherlands, according to de Gooijer.

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Lifestyle Perspectives Affect Health
The comparison between European lifestyles and those of Americans continued in the session “If You Build It, Will They Come?” Presenter Kate Thomson of Sterling-Rice Group emphasized that obesity is on the rise all over the world, particularly for countries that have adopted Western lifestyles. Thomson and her colleagues conducted a study contrasting the shopping and dining routines of American women with those of women in France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The findings revealed that American women define a healthy lifestyle as eating right and exercising while to European women a healthy lifestyle consists of more than simply eating nutritious foods and exercising. The European definition of a healthy lifestyle is more holistic and encompasses happiness and having a balanced existence (i.e., copious amounts of leisure time and little or no stress). In the United States, Americans place great emphasis on multitasking, squeezing in as many duties and errands as possible during the day. This has led to an eruption in the sales of convenience foods as American women do not have time to prepare homemade meals. In contrast, because European women have more balanced lives, they have robust cooking skills; cook more meals from scratch; and predominantly purchase food that is fresh, seasonal, natural, minimally processed, and free of artificial ingredients. Furthermore, European women visit food markets several times a week whereas American women usually limit grocery shopping to once a week or less.

European and American approaches to exercise and weight loss differ greatly too. In America, exercise often involves scheduling time to drive to a gym or fitness center to participate in the latest fitness fad. In Europe, exercise is integrated into daily routines, so European women walk a lot and ride bicycles in place of driving. Instead of restrictive dieting and prescriptive eating for weight loss and weight management—as American women do—European women do not eliminate foods from their diets and simply eat less of all the foods that they find enjoyable. In Europe, eating in moderation takes precedence over food deprivation, and there is no need for reduced-fat versions of popular indulgences, items with added healthy ingredients (e.g., orange juice with omega-3 fatty acids), or functional foods.

Essentially, women (and men) in the United States have access to more fitness centers, convenience foods, reduced-fat foods, and functional foods than their European counterparts, yet the rate of obesity is much higher among Americans. Presenter Gary Foster of Temple University School of Medicine indirectly provided a reason for this paradox in the session “Strategies for Weight Management.” Americans have built a highly positive reinforcement around a sedentary lifestyle and the consumption of high-fat, high-calorie foods, Foster said. In addition, he pointed out that there is no real difference between a low-carbohydrate diet and a low-fat diet; regardless of which diet a person chooses, dieting alone is not effective in the long term. Those on low-carb diets tend to regain weight slowly, and those on low-fat diets tend to regain weight quickly.

Thus, Foster explained, the cure for weight gain is long-term energy balance: calories consumed ≤calories expended. This can be achieved with an effective strategy grounded in behavioral adjustment—that is, a plan designed to modify eating habits and physical activity. One way to modify eating habits is through portion control, which presenter James Painter of Eastern Illinois University discussed in the session “Creating Packaging and Products with Weight Loss in Mind.” Painter emphasized that packaging and portioning matter because Americans want to eat everything on their plates, in their bowls, or in a food package. “We have this idea that more is better,” he said. “Well, our waistlines are more, but it’s not better.” According to Painter, the food industry already offers smaller packages and portions of food products, but American consumers simply don’t buy them that often. Visibility, convenience, and accessibility determine how much consumers eat, he said.

Maintaining Muscle Health
In addition to obesity, there is another major public health concern afflicting industrialized nations: muscle health. In fact, sarcopenia—the loss of muscle mass and function—plagues about 25% of adults over the age of 65 and 31% to 50% of adults over the age of 80, as Kyle Timmerman of the University of Texas Medical Branch explained in the presentation “How Can We Maintain or Gain Lean Body Mass? The Role of Protein in Healthy Aging.” And this is no longer a minority of the population.

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Presenter Valerie Walker of Datamonitor elucidated that those age 45–74 currently represent 33% of the U.S. and Canadian populations, and 36% of the populations in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The population age 65+ is growing even more dramatically. This group will make up 20% of the American population and 24% of the European population by 2030.

Figure 1. Consumer satisfaction with food and beverage options available to help manage muscle health and heart health—U.S. and Europe. From Wellness 11 presentation by Valerie Walker.

In recent years, there has been a lot of emphasis placed on heart health in this aging population. There have been numerous food and beverage products released with ingredients that manufacturers claim to be heart healthy. Because of this buzz, 55% of the aging population said that heart health was among their top two health concerns. Only 18% said muscle health was among their top two concerns.

“There is a real educational marketing opportunity here to get consumers to pay attention to their muscle health,” said Walker. In addition, there is a clear opportunity for food manufacturers to develop products that meet this health concern. Of the Europeans concerned with muscle health, 60% are not satisfied with the range of food and beverage options available to manage their muscle health. In the United States, almost half (48%) feel the same. For the aging population, functional foods are just as, if not more, attractive than taking supplements to meet their health needs. “The muscle foods market is currently small but could eventually surpass the market size for blood sugar health foods,” said Walker. She sees the market potential at around $800 million.

Timmerman agrees that nutrition and disease are tightly linked; protein malnutrition is a main cause of sarcopenia. Only 25% of older adults consume the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein, and Timmerman makes the argument that this RDA is much lower than it should be, which means that about 50% are consuming less than they should. Given this information, maybe food and beverage manufacturers can work on developing protein-rich foods for the aging population to assist in building lean muscle mass.

Insights Into Sodium Intake
Public health experts concur about another critical wellness issue: The majority of the U.S. population needs to reduce sodium consumption to improve cardiovascular health. Since 1968, more than 18 national and international governmental and medical bodies have expressed that opinion, said Gary Beauchamp of the Monell Chemical Senses Center and a presenter in the session “The 2010 Sodium Reduction Guidelines: Challenges and Opportunities.”

So what effect have such recommendations had on U.S. sodium intake? None whatsoever, said Beauchamp and session co-presenter Adam Drewnowski.

“Sodium intake has been absolutely constant for the past 40 years,” said Drewnowski of the Center for Public Health Nutrition and the Center for Obesity Research at the University of Washington.

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In 2010 the Institute of Medicine issued a report urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require food makers to gradually and systematically reduce the sodium content of processed foods, the major dietary contributor to sodium intake. The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend cutting sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg/day for the general population and to 1,500 mg daily for those who are 51 and older or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.

Salt plays a critical role in the food supply, of course. It functions as a preservative, affects the texture of food, and enhances flavor. “Of all the compounds that we know that can inhibit bitter things, sodium is the best,” said Beauchamp.

Developing a salt substitute is a tricky proposition, however, because humans have a very specific mechanism for detecting salty tastes. Because of the specificity of the salt taste receptor, “it’s unlikely that we can find an aspartame of salt,” Beauchamp reflected. There is also a second, less-specific taste mechanism, Beauchamp said, and how it functions is unknown.

Some good news, however, according to Beauchamp and Drewnowski, is the fact that salt preferences can be modified. Numerous studies have demonstrated that gradually reducing dietary sodium can lead to a preference for lower-sodium foods, with changes in preference occurring as soon as three to four weeks. “A change in salt intake is followed by a change in salt preference,” Beauchamp summarized.

More research into the way in which salt taste receptors function is needed, said Beauchamp, adding that the food industry also needs more innovative product development tactics to allow for the formulation of better-tasting reduced-sodium foods.

Drewnowski pointed out that adhering to the Dietary Guidelines’ recommendation for reducing sodium consumption may have an unintended negative effect because those who reduce sodium intake to the recommended level are unlikely to meet the adequate intake level for potassium of 4,700 mg/day.

“People who eat fewer calories can reduce their sodium consumption,” said Drewnowski, “but they’ll never meet the recommended potassium intake.” In fact, he continued, the two dietary recommendations—i.e., reducing sodium intake by two-thirds and doubling potassium intake—re incompatible because sodium and potassium often come from the same dietary sources.

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Tapping Into the Benefits of Spices
As consumers are urged to steer clear of salt, there’s an opportunity to choose a different approach to flavor enhancement—one that affords numerous health benefits. Valued in ancient civilizations for their mythical medicinal powers, spices have a rich history, and as conference presenter David Heber suggested, they have the potential to be major contributors to contemporary health and wellness.

“We are at the cusp of a major renaissance, with modern-day science unveiling new protective properties of spices and herbs,” said Heber of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. His presentation was titled “The Science of Spices: Reasons to Season.”

A growing body of scientific evidence supports the therapeutic benefits of a wide range of spices, said Heber. “Cinnamon, for instance, influences the action of insulin on blood sugar regulation. Red pepper enhances satiety metabolically; it raises the metabolism just a little bit. Thyme reduces cell damage caused by free radicals and supports heart health,” he observed.

“Spices have a lot in common with fruits and vegetables—vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients,” said Heber. He pointed out that more than 2,000 phytonutrients have been identified in spices and herbs.

Relatively recent research has shown that spices and herbs can help prevent the formation of heterocyclic amines, the carcinogenic compounds created when meats are barbecued, grilled, fried, or broiled.

In addition, a small study in which Heber participated demonstrated that the addition of a spice mixture to hamburger prior to cooking appears to reduce the formation of malondialdehyde (MDA), a marker for oxidation of lipids, which is a key step in the formation of artery-clogging plaque.

The researchers added a combination of cloves, cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, ginger, black pepper, paprika, and garlic powder to hamburgers before cooking. They found a 71% reduction in the MDA concentration in the spiced burgers versus control burgers made without the spice mixture. In addition, concentration of MDA in the urine of the volunteers who consumed the spiced burgers was reduced by 49% compared with the level of the oxidative stress marker in volunteers who ate control burgers.

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“The ability to reduce the formation of lipid peroxidation products in cooked foods with common spices establishes a scientific basis for encouraging use of spices during cooking,” Heber summarized.

One of the pluses of adding herbs and spices to product formulations is the fact that they have “clean label appeal,” said Diego Serrano of McCormick & Co., who presented a talk titled “Delivering Wellness Through Herbs and Spices.” It can be challenging, however, to figure out how to incorporate them at levels that will deliver the desired antioxidant benefits while still producing a great-tasting product. “Stews and braises work best,” said Serrano. Ethnic foods are also a good fit because their characteristically strong flavors complement spices and herbs well. In addition, adding a small amount of fat or oil in a formulation can smooth out flavors, he added.

Serrano shared several product prototypes and discussed their potential benefits and target audiences: Spicy Ginger and Lime Energy Beverage positioned as a post-exercise beverage for older women seeking anti-inflammatory benefits, Brown Sugar and Cinnamon Granola Bar with an all-natural positioning and formulated to deliver antioxidants and improved insulin response, and Italian Mediterranean Herb and Tomato Soup with Sea Salt formulated with rosemary and sage and targeted to baby boomers seeking a cognitive boost and increased antioxidant intake.

Surmounting Marketing Hurdles
With a potential growing population for some new functional food and beverage products, it becomes important to market the functional benefits of the products so that consumers know why they should buy them. Nutrition profiling systems are being debated around the world, and while no one proposed model is favored, one thing is clear: they will directly impact food manufacturers’ product development and marketing efforts. These systems appear in many different places—on the front of packages, on shelf tags in grocery stores, online, in restaurants, and even within food companies. Nutrition profiling attempts to define what is good and bad in foods although, as many argue, this can all vary per individual. In addition, these systems can be used to do the following:

• Limit the sale of foods and beverages in schools,

• Determine eligibility for health claims,

• Quickly identify better-for-you food on package labels,

• Help manufacturers improve the nutritional profile of their products, and

• Restrict food and beverage promotion, especially to children.

There are two basic categories of nutrient profiling systems, according to Cathy Kapica of Ketchum, who presented on the topic at Wellness 11. Factual schemes show actual nutrient content; these approaches include the Nutrition Facts Panel or the new Nutrition Keys that the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute released earlier this year. The second category is the interpretative schemes, which establish criteria for evaluating the nutrient content. The most well-known example of an interpretative scheme is the United Kingdom’s traffic light approach, which uses a color-coded system to label food items as having high, medium, or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars, and salt.

Currently, there is no consensus among governments, public health advocates, and scientists as to which method is best. “Because of the complex matrix of food, it is challenging to apply a system across product categories,” explained Kapica. And yet permission to advertise, market, and sell food and beverage products may be based on this type of profiling system. For food manufacturers, it is vital to be engaged in the process as systems are proposed and evaluated.

“It is a complex issue by which the manufacturers, governments, and food authorities need to come to some agreement on a regional basis,” said presenter Lu Ann Williams of Innova Market Insights.

USDA to Offer New Online Dietary Tracking Tool
Conventional wisdom would suggest that those looking to lose weight should cut back on their computer time. Starting this fall, however, people seeking to improve their health and wellness will have an excellent reason to log onto their computers. Dubbed SuperTracker, a new online tool under development by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion is an extension of USDA’s website. Speaking at Wellness 11, USDA’s Jackie Haven offered a sneak peek at SuperTracker, which is part of the agency’s program to communicate the health and wellness messages spelled out in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. With SuperTracker, consumers will be able to develop personalized nutrition and physical activity plans and track their daily food intake and physical activity to see how it measures up against the plan. The interactive tool will also provide nutrition tips and weight management advice and will include detailed nutritional information for 8,000 foods.

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LSU Students Win Wellness Competition
It’s hard to imagine a better place to celebrate the development of healthful new food and beverage products than IFT’s annual Wellness conference. So it was fitting this year that IFT and competition sponsor CanolaInfo ( held the final rounds of the inaugural Heart-Healthy Product Development Competition for university food science students at Wellness 11. The winning student team from the food science program at Louisiana State University (LSU) developed Ze-Ti, a shelf-stable bubble tea designed for the grab-and-go lifestyle.

Ze-Ti is innovative, heart-healthy, and fun,” said IFT President-Elect Roger Clemens, who was one of the competition judges. “I was particularly impressed with how the team created a product from inception to market roll-out. An added challenge was that this product typically isn’t associated with heart health.”

The goal of this competition was to showcase how the food industry can position itself to help consumers comply with the Dietary Guidelines’ recommendation of saturated fat comprising less than 10% of total calories. Students were asked to create new, heart-healthy food products that are low in saturated fat and free of trans fat. Products could be for any meal of the day or a healthy snack and had to include canola oil, which is low in saturated fat.

Bubble tea, originally invented in Taiwan, is a sweet tea drink with tapioca pearls. Ze-Ti is low in fat and sodium; a good source of potassium, fiber, and vitamin C; and free of cholesterol, trans fat, and added sugars. In addition, the manufacturing process for making Ze-Ti is energy efficient, and the cups it comes in are made from recyclable materials.

“We wanted to show that a fun beverage can also be good for you,” said Adriana Soto, LSU student team captain. Soto and the other members of the team, Alisa Todd and Darryl Holliday, received a check for $3,500, complimentary registration to the 2011 IFT Annual Meeting & Food Expo® in New Orleans, La., and a trophy.

The second place team from Rutgers University received a check for $2,500 for HeartVest—a heart-healthy frozen chicken patty blended with vegetables and fruit. Third place went to the Texas Tech team for FruiTeeze—a healthy alternative to ice cream made from frozen banana purée. Team members received a check for $1,000.


Kelly Hensel is IFT Digital Media Editor ( [email protected] ).

Mary Ellen Kuhn is Managing Editor of Food Technology ([email protected]).

Toni Tarver is Senior Writer/Editor for Food Technology ([email protected]).