Why It's the Calorie Count of Choice

Each food item, including the Oreo wafer snack pack, is 100 calories.
Each food item, including the Oreo wafer snack pack, is 100 calories. (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)
By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The latest stealth weapons in the battle against overeating are waiting for you at supermarkets across the country. And we're not talking containers of carrot and celery sticks. Instead, 100-calorie snack packages of things dieters only dreamed of -- such as Oreos, Chips Ahoy!, Wheat Thins and Ritz crackers -- are reassuring Americans that cookies and salty snacks can coexist with healthful eating plans.

The message is clear: Don't open that big Pandora's box of sweet temptation! Reach for a controlled calorie portion of foods you know and love but thought were off-limits if you were watching your weight.

The mastermind is the Nabisco company (marketed by Kraft Foods), which latched onto a number -- 100 -- that doctors and nutritionists approve of for a snack. Nabisco launched the line in July 2004 with five varieties of the company's popular cookies and crackers reformulated to meet the 100-calorie limit. They're more expensive than the originals (see "Paying for Portions," Page 2), they're definitely less substantial and they don't taste exactly the same. But consumers like them enough to have generated more than $100 million in sales within a year. Other companies have followed.

The idea seems to appeal to people who care about portion control but don't want to count calories, those who yearn for familiar foods in calorie-controlled portions, people in search of a convenient packable treat and the weak-willed -- meaning most of us -- who find it hard to eat just one cookie. After all, with an open box nearby, it's easy to eat a whole lot more than 100 calories.

That tidy limited portion size is something even critics of the food industry approve of, because it turns out that the size of a container is more relevant to overeating than the number of calories in it. "The rule is the larger the container, the bowl, the package, the plate, the more calories people will eat from it," says nutritionist Marion Nestle, author of "What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating" (North Point Press).

"So 100 calories is a brilliant idea. This is one package. People will eat one package, no matter how big it is. You can have every single thing in it, and it will only be 100 calories."

Those tidy packs are convenient, too -- you can throw one into a purse, briefcase or lunchbox and avoid a trip to the vending machine. And they're family friendly: "It helps mom manage her food intake and provides convenient portion control for children," says Karen Miller-Kovach, the chief scientific officer of Weight Watchers.

In the scheme of things, 100 calories out of a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet isn't a make-or-break sin.

"It depends on a person's total calorie needs, but I think it's a reasonable amount for a snack," says Miller-Kovach. "But it depends on whether that particular 100 calories of baked Wheat Thins or mini Oreos will do it. For people who are satisfied by that, I think that's great. But for many people, a large piece of fruit is more satisfying."

Even soda companies are cashing in on the 100 calorie trend.
Even soda companies are cashing in on the 100 calorie trend.(Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)
Which raises the question of empty calories. With few exceptions, such as the South Beach Diet and Balance bars, nobody's claiming that most of the 100-calorie products are healthful in and of themselves. Making a habit of eating them could have consequences.

"It depends on what the snack is in terms of your overall health," says Donald Hensrud, a doctor and editor in chief of the Mayo Clinic's "Healthy Weight for Everybody." "A small to medium piece of fruit has approximately 60 calories and is more healthful than most of the processed products on the market."

The other big question is whether we really need that bag to keep us from overeating. There are plenty of ways to have a 100-calorie snack that are considerably less expensive and much more nutritious.

A tablespoon of peanut butter on cucumber or apple slices or in a celery stalk is a nutritionally sound and satisfying snack. Half that amount of peanut butter thinly spread on two small graham crackers works, too. So does half an ounce of cheese on a couple of crackers or a slice of whole-wheat diet bread. A half-cup of blueberries with skim milk is full of disease-fighting antioxidants. A half-cup of fresh orange juice is loaded with potassium. An individual serving size of nonfat yogurt gives you calcium. Even a mini bagel or a very small baked potato (about 3.5 ounces) with salsa makes the grade. And if you're really carb-crazed, you can count out 25 chocolate-covered raisins, 21 M&Ms or 25 small jelly beans.

Of course, any of those requires just a bit of forethought or preparation. With the prepackaged snacks, all you have to do is open the bag.

And not open another one.

And there's the rub. If you don't think you'll be able to resist that second snack, or, heaven forbid, a third, you're in trouble. If you eat an extra 100 calories, it would take (depending on your weight) approximately one hour of standing or driving, or 40 minutes of ironing, or 20 minutes of table tennis or speed walking or 15 minutes of energetic water aerobics to burn that up.

However, that amount of extra exercise is rarely enough. "People are not overeating by 100 calories but by many hundreds," says Nestle. "You just can't compensate for that kind of caloric load."

"The bottom line," says Hensrud, "is, does it do what it's intended to do -- lower overall calorie intake. If you're eating something because it's available, will it defeat the purpose?"

© 2006 The Washington Post Company