NEW YORK (AP) - 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/Edy'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.
It's just the kind of marketing that might attract Monica Olivas. She says she wants to lead a healthy lifestyle, including curbing her fat and caloric intake as much as possible. But most low-fat foods just don't appeal to her.
"Sometimes companies go too far and take out all the fat - and all the flavor," says Olivas, a 29-year-old recruiter from Pico Rivera, Calif.
A NEW 'LIGHT'
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.
Similarly, Lay's in 1998 introduced Wow fat-free potato chips that use fat substitute Olestra. But the ick factor trumped healthiness when the Food and Drug Administration 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.
"Originally, a lot of the diet stuff just wasn't good," says Richard George, chair of the department of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "People would say you could throw away contents and eat the box. But they've gotten better."
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.
Reducing a nominal number of calories in your diet each day - even from that morning coffee run or afternoon visit to the vending machine for chips - is an effective way to battle obesity, says David Levitsky, professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University.
He 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.
But in order for that to work you have to eat the snacks in moderation. It becomes a problem when people overestimate how much more they can eat of nonfat ice cream or low-calorie chips, says Kelly Brownell, a nutritionist at Yale University.
"If consumption of ice cream and potato chips does not increase and people eat somewhat better versions, the outcome will be good," Brownell says.
TASTE IS KEY
First, companies have to convince dieters that their mid-calorie snacks are not only healthy, but tasty too.
Flavor is a key when Betty Kranzdorf, 55, considers eating foods with lower calories. She says she avoids reduced-calorie English muffins ("horrible texture and taste") but she'll pick up reduced-fat Pringles chips because she can't tell the difference between those and the originals.
"I won't buy 'low cal' just because it's 'low-cal,'" says Kranzdorf, a paralegal from New York. "If the food I'm eating isn't satisfying, then I'll just go eat something that is more to my liking later - which defeats the whole purpose."
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. 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," says spokeswoman Anna Lingeris.
"We're hearing more and more that customers want healthier options as a balanced lifestyle becomes a more prevalent way of living," Lingeris says.
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."
The company says it was able to lower the calories and fat without sacrificing taste: Regular Kettle Cooked chips have 160 calories and 9 grams of fat, while the reduced-fat versions have 130 calories and 6 grams of fat.
"The strategy behind mid-calorie offerings is finding the happy space between zero fat and regular products," says Tony Matta, vice president of marketing for Frito Lay, which makes Lay's chip brands.
But sometimes finding the right balance isn't enough - marketing can be key. Dreyer's/Edy's (it's called Dreyer's on the West Coast and Edy's on the East) learned that the hard way.
The company in May rolled out an ad campaign that emphasizes that Slow Churned ice cream is half the fat and one third of the calories of regular ice cream - but the company avoids using the word "light."
Why? Because 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. In fact, 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 says. "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 8 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 8 grams of fat, but Dreyer's/Edy's brand manager Jen Eiseman says 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 says. "Now it's not about giving things up, but finding healthier ways of having it all."