Can industry leverage technology to influence energy intake?

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food

Innovation and technology can be used in food production to help improve health and reduce the calorie content of food. But, solving the obesity epidemic is a complex problem, and there is no single solution, according to a report by the US Institute of Medicine (IoM).

The report, summarizing an IoM Food Forum public workshop held in late 2010 examines the complexity of human eating behavior and explores ways in which the food industry can continue to leverage modern and innovative food technologies to influence energy intake as one method to reduce and prevent obesity.

Participants explored progress that behavioral scientists have made over the past ten to 20 years in teasing apart the inordinate complexity of human eating behavior; how food scientists have been using this growing evidence base to develop novel technologies in an effort to reduce the obesity burden on the public; and strategies for moving forward.

Challenges

The workshop participants explored several issues of eating behavioral challenges.

Firstly, the participants noted that a growing body of evidence shows a strong association between increased portion size and increased energy intake. They said that although a handful of studies have shown correlations between increased portion size and obesity, it remains unclear whether increased portion sizes are driving obesity or vice versa.

“Second, another growing body of evidence suggests that energy density arguably has an even greater effect than portion control, with studies showing that reducing energy density—for example, by increasing the water content of foods—reduces energy intake,”​ said the report.

The workshop participants added that although there are many popular claims that high protein content, low glycemic index, and various other food properties can reduce energy intake by increasing satiety, however, evidence for such effects are mixed and the effects of increased satiety on energy intake “are moderate at best.”

Magic bullet

Several participants at the workshop asserted that there is no “magic bullet”​ food product, or type of product, to serve as an obesity prevention or reduction tool.

“Nor is it clear whether any of the products identified during the workshop that are currently on the market, such as the various reduced-fat snack products, have impacted either short-term energy intake or long-term weight status,” ​said the report.

“That there is no magic bullet raises questions about what to prioritize when developing new products.

“For example, is it more effective to make small changes to many products or large changes to a few products? Should changes be made silently, without consumer awareness? Should more effort be focused on developing technologies to help consumers keep better track of calories consumed?"

Suggestions from participants for moving forward included keeping the focus on calories, recognizing that some segments of the population are not reachable through conventional public education and that alternative strategies need to be developed, educating children about portion sizes and other eating behavior norms, and educating the educators themselves.

Research and collaboration

The report concluded that an overarching theme expressed by many participants during the two-day workshop dialogue was the lack of research, particularly long-term research; including the need for “probative​” research aimed at evaluating whether interventions actually impact obesity.

“Too often, studies stop at short-term purchasing or eating behaviors or energy intake,” ​said the report.

Participants also contributed to discussions around the potential for collaborations between industry and government to develop novel food products for commercialization, but noted that in many cases issues with taste and price have held back development.

Taste and price

“Whether the goal is to develop a reduced fat food or a portion-controlled frozen meal, or something else entirely, if it does not taste good, consumers will not eat it … Moreover, improved products must be affordable to consumers; otherwise, people will not buy them,”​ said the report.

“Finally, on top of all the technical, economic, and regulatory challenges, is the reality that some consumers are philosophically opposed to the very concept of food technology, or food processing, regardless of any potential health benefits.”

Related topics: R&D

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