BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Dark chocolate is in. So, too, is beef jerky. And full-fat ice cream? You bet.
Driven by fast-changing definitions of what is healthy to eat, people are turning to foods they shunned just a couple of years ago. Studies now suggest that not all fat, for example, necessarily contributes to weight gain or heart problems. That has left companies scrambling to push some foods that they thought had long passed their popularity peak — and health advocates wondering what went wrong.
Under the new thinking, not all fat is bad, and neither are all salty foods. A stigma among the public remains for sugar substitutes, but less so for cane sugar, at least in moderation. And all of those attributes are weighed against qualities like simplicity and taste.
“I think the risk-reward equation has changed,” said Steve French, a managing partner at the Natural Marketing Institute, a research firm, said.
Edy’s ice cream, known as Dreyer’s west of the Rockies, is a case in point. Edy’s sold 10.8 percent more of its Edy’s Grand Ice Cream, a full-fat ice cream, in the 52 weeks that ended Feb. 21 compared with the year before, according to IRI, a data and research firm. Other full-fat ice creams also had sales gains.
Over the same period, Edy’s sold 4.8 percent less of its Slow-Churned Ice Cream, made with a process that lowers the fat content. When the product was introduced in 2004, it was promoted as having less fat and fewer calories — and sales soared.
Now, that sort of marketing is gone. Instead, the company has retooled some of its Slow-Churned products to make them with fewer ingredients and to include cane sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup, which many consumers don’t like. Labels on those ice creams will also tell consumers that they contain no genetically engineered ingredients.
The devil, of course, is in the details of those new scientific findings. None of the new studies, for instance, recommend eating as much bacon as you want.
“The new definition of modern health is very different from the traditional view, which was to reduce fat, sugar and sodium,” said Robert Kilmer, president of Nestlé Dreyer’s Ice Cream, a division of Nestlé USA. “Healthy now is about what’s in my food and where did it come from.”
Food companies have been working feverishly over the last several years to offer what consumers perceive as improved nutritional content and healthier food. Sales of products made from organic ingredients have risen sharply in recent years, for example.
Mars Food, a division of the privately held Mars candy company whose brands include Uncle Ben’s and Dolmio, reduced sodium by over 20 percent in many of its products and recently announced a plan to go even further. And General Mills is eliminating artificial colors and flavors from its cereals — no more neon hues in Trix.
But consumers are constantly recalculating the pros and cons of the foods they eat — leading to some unexpected foods rising in popularity.
For example, in 2015, Americans checked the fat content on food labels less often than they did in 2006, according to research from the Natural Marketing Institute. They’re focusing more on the list of ingredients, a product’s environmental impact and animal welfare — the famous “Farm” episode in “Portlandia” in which a waitress can tell diners the name of the chicken they’ll be eating remains relevant five years after it was first shown.
And don’t forget about taste. A majority of Americans say they value taste more than how healthy a food is.
This can be frustrating for food executives, who spent years getting salt, sugar and fat out of a wide variety of products, paying high costs in development and marketing along the way. Michael Sharp, the research scientist at Nestlé who has presided over the reformulation of its Slow-Churned ice creams, noted that all of the ingredients he is working to eliminate today were originally added to the product for good reasons.
“The ingredients we’ve subtracted either had some functionality on their own or improved the functionality of other ingredients,” Mr. Sharp said. “Corn syrup adds a lot of body and bulk to a product — but the consumer doesn’t want it today.”
Nutrition experts are watching the shift warily. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a research and advocacy group, noted that companies have gone a long way toward reducing or eliminating saturated fats, which raise cholesterol in the blood and increase the risk of heart disease.
The American Heart Association and other health advocacy groups have long recommended limiting consumption of saturated fat. But in recent years, studies have suggested that maybe saturated fat is not as bad as once thought. One analysis of research on saturated fats, which generated somecriticism, blurred the link between it and heart disease. Another study concluded that skim milk did not appear to restrict weight gain among young children.
That rethinking seems to have encouraged some consumers to return to full-fat foods. Edy’s French Vanilla Grand ice cream, for example, has four grams of saturated fat in every half-cup. A half-cup of the same flavor in its Slow-Churned variety, the recently less popular option, has 1.5 grams of saturated fat.
Similarly, the public appears to have been persuaded by some evidence thateating dark chocolate is good for the heart. Technavio, a market research firm, predicted that sales would increase an average of more than 8 percent a year through 2019.
But the federal government also recommends a limit on total fat consumption — the combination of bad and good fats. An eight-ounce bar of Ghirardelli 72% Intense Dark chocolate supplies more than the government’s daily recommendation for saturated fat and more than three-quarters of the recommendation for total fat.
“There are recommended limits on total fat that I think have sort of gotten lost in the marketing,” Ms. Wootan said. “There’s nothing in science that tells you it’s healthy to eat as much fat as you want, just as long as it’s not saturated fat.”
Another sore point among nutritionists is the rising sales of jerky, once regarded as little more than a sodium delivery mechanism. Now, as consumers clamor for foods high in protein, jerky has become a popular option. One ounce delivers about a quarter of the daily recommended amount of protein and costs roughly $2.50.
Sales of meat snacks like jerky shot up 46.9 percent from 2011 to 2015, to more than $2.6 billion, according to Nielsen, a market research firm.
“Jerky is manly, jerky is kind of rednecky and jerky can even be kind of offensive if people don’t know what it is,” said Troy Link, chief executive of Link Snacks, a family-owned snack food business. “So we changed things up and began calling it a protein snack, and now jerky is being eaten by higher-end health eaters who haven’t been involved in the category before.”
Link Snacks’ most popular product, Jack Link’s Teriyaki Beef Jerky, delivers 12 grams of protein and just 80 calories in a one-ounce serving — and one-fifth the daily recommended amount of sodium. Mr. Link said the company had worked to reduce the sodium in its products, along with getting rid of monosodium glutamate and nitrites.
“For the most part, sodium has become good again, and I think certain fats have become good again, too,” he said.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “people want something that tastes good.”
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