Your local yogurt aisle has evolved. Besides your customary calcium, active cultures and protein, you can now tap into a whole host of other health-friendly benefits.
You can get gut-healthy probiotic cultures. You can get your colon-healthy fiber. Your kid can get some brain-healthy DHA omega-3 fatty acids.
Meanwhile, over in the snack aisle, you can buy both granola bars and nut mixes that combine fiber and probiotics for your digestive health.
In the 1990s, it was the no-fat revolution: Manufacturers took your favorite foods, sucked out the fat and put them on the shelves for you to enjoy in all their lardless glory. Earlier in this decade, it was the low-carb craze. Cutting out carbs was as easy as buying some turkey and cheese and rolling them in a low-carb pita. Then, more recently, the emphasis was on to trans-fats and the removal of the cholesterol-raising compounds from processed foods.
Today, it’s not what’s been taken out of our favorite processed foods, but what has been put in.
With advancements in food technology, nearly any food can be produced in hopes of pulling an April Fools’ joke on your taste buds.
Fueled by science and good old competition, producers have gotten better about adding ingredients deemed “healthy” to foods in which they are not normally present — like fiber in your yogurt, calcium in your pre-milk cereal, probiotics in your granola bars and omega-3 fatty acids in your eggs.
“There is certainly a lot of competition, but it is fueled mostly by consumer demand for healthier foods and functional ingredients (and) also, of course, by the need for food companies to sell products and make a profit, which is not necessarily a bad thing,” says Fadi Aramouni, a Kansas State University professor of food science and extension specialist.
Nutrient name game
If you own a TV and have watched it recently, you’ve probably seen the commercial with the little old lady eating Fiber One yogurt samples. She adamantly tells the grocer that, “There’s no fiber in any of ’em” and says that she knows that because “It’s too creamy to be fiber.”
So, how do the FiberOne folks get the fiber into their yogurt without it tasting like brown rice has been mixed in?
A dietary fiber usually produced from chicory root, inulin can add bulk without a grainy texture. It also can add helpful bacteria in the way yogurt does, meaning it gives more bang for the buck to LiveActive for Digestive Health chewy granola bars and to Planters’ NUT-rition Digestive Health Mix, both manufactured by Kraft.
Also in the rotation of fiber-added foods are polydextrose, which makes Post’s Fruity Pebbles cereal a good source of fiber, and maltodextrin, which appears down the aisle in Cascadian Farm Organic Fruit and Nut Granola. So how do these fiber additives do what they do without adding the fiber-like taste?
“They are chemically modified to improve their solubility and make their taste more bland by removing or neutralizing certain bitter compounds,” says Aramouni.
Add to those the more clear-cut “healthy additives” like extra calcium in your kid’s Trix cereal and the omega-3s in the Yoplait Kids’ Dora the Explorer yogurt, and you’ve got a whole arsenal nutrients at the ready.
Value and benefit
Besides the possible health benefits, what’s the other reason to eat those foods and all foods in general? Taste, of course. Which is where the fool’s part really comes into play. Because who wants to eat something that doesn’t taste good?
Koushik Adhikari, assistant professor of sensory analysis at Kansas State, explains that just liking the nutrient facts about a particular food won’t mean your taste buds will enjoy it.
“Consumers have a mental image of each product that they eat, and if anything is amiss, they might not like it. You put too much fiberlike substances in ice cream, it might be perceived as gummy in texture,” Adhikari says. “Whether the consumer will overlook the change in texture depends from person to person. If you are health-conscious, then you might sacrifice some as regards (to) taste and texture.”
Taste and texture mean a lot to shopper Patty Coffey, of Lawrence. She admits that she doesn’t usually look at the nutrient labeling on products — she goes straight for her favorites in the flavor category.
“I should, but I don’t very much,” Coffey says of checking out nutrients in the foods she buys. “Well, I do get whole-grain breads, I do try to look at what has the lowest amount of fat and that kind of thing in it.”
But looking for foods with extra added nutrients?
“If I had a coupon, I’m more likely to try it,” she says.
Adhikari also points out that there is a cost element to foods that are deemed “value-added” because they have extra benefits or properties.
“The other thing, of course, is cost, too,” he says. “Whether you are willing to buy a product which is expensive and has some off-sensory characteristics.”
To avoid buying something that has “off-sensory characteristics,” but healthy, Kim Cole of Linwood relies on her computer-savvy daughters, who comb the Web for health information.
“My kids call me all the time with updates,” Cole says of the nutrition front. In her cart recently was a box of whole-grain pasta her daughter recommended. An extra benefit? Six grams of fiber with the help of added oat fiber.
“She made some stuff for me out of this, and it was awesome,” Cole says of one daughter. “So, I was going to try it and see how it tastes.”
So what’s next for consumers like Cole to try in the arena of value-added manufactured foods? Aramouni suggests a number of possible directions to follow the calcium, omega-3 and fiber crazes.
“I think we’ll continue to see emphasis on antioxidants and fiber. Maybe also low-glycemic index ingredients and more gluten-free foods,” Aramouni says. “Also more local and ‘green,’ environmentally friendly (foods).”