‘Mid-calories’ snacks seek a flavorful middle ground

By Mae Anderson Associated Press

Nonfat cheese that tastes like plastic. Low-calorie soda that leaves a bitter aftertaste. Sugar-free brownies that crumble like Styrofoam.

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 ice cream, Hershey’s chocolate and Lay’s potato chips are trying to solve this age-old dieter’s dilemma by rolling out so-mid-calorie goodies that have more fat and calories than the snacks of earlier diet crazes but less than the original versions. They’re following the lead of soda companies like Pepsi and Dr Pepper that introduced mid-calorie drinks last year.

It’s hard to isolate sales of mid-calorie snacks since they also usually have reduced fat, or other healthy attributes like reduced sodium. But sales of all foods and drinks in which the amount of things like fat, sugar, salt, carbohydrates have been actively reduced during production have risen 16 percent to $51.72 billion since 2006, according to research firm Euromonitor International.

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 stigma of bad taste that goes along 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.

For instance, McDonald’s rolled out the McLean Deluxe, a low-fat burger, in 1991. But the burger, which was in part made with seaweed, had dismal sales. It disappeared from restaurants within five years.

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.

Turns out, there’s some science behind all this calorie slashing. Nutritionists say it’s not necessary to cut out all the “junk” foods in your cupboard or to take all the fat or calories out of them.

David Levitsky, professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, says “if you typically have a 200-calorie cookie and you have a 160-calorie cookie instead” it won’t make you hungrier at the next meal. And since obesity can be caused by as few as 20 excess calories a day, Levitsky says cutting a few at each meal makes a big difference.

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

With that in mind, Hershey’s in June introduced Simple Pleasures, chocolate with 30 percent less fat. A serving size of six pieces equals 180 calories and 8 grams of fat — that’s 30 calories and 5 grams of fat less than the original Hershey’s chocolate bar.

Similarly, Lay’s in July rolled out two new flavors of its Kettle Cooked potato chips with 40 percent 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 “Applewood Smoked BBQ” and “Sun-Dried Tomato and Parmesan.”