When's the last time you were guiltily scraping your way to the bottom of an ice cream carton and noticed this message: "150 calories per pint"?
Yes, per pint.
Foods aimed at helping you slim down have been around for decades, but a recent wave of ultra-low calorie products -- such as the 150-calorie per pint dessert Arctic Zero -- is making a direct appeal to our national sense of gluttony. "What we're seeing here is a strategy that says Americans like to stuff their faces," says food industry analyst Phil Lempert. "And these mean we don't have to sacrifice."
With two-thirds of American adults overweight or obese, health officials have long warned that ballooning portion sizes are a major factor. Now food manufacturers are testing whether the desire for big servings can make peace with our need to shed pounds -- or at least make big profits.
"It's fine to eat one serving of ice cream, but I can't remember the last time I sat down with a pint and ate half a cup," says Amit Pandhi, CEO of Arctic Zero Inc.
"We feel like a serving is an entire pint," Pandhi says. "And if you're looking at it from that point of view, our product is the only one where you can eat a whole pint and not feel like you're doing something terrible."
Similarly, commercials for MGD 64, a 64-calorie beer from MillerCoors being heavily marketed this year, pits a tiny martini or petite glass of wine against a full bottle of brew.
Though Tofu Shirataki noodles from House Foods America Corp., offer two 20-calorie servings per 8-ounce package, it's understood that you'll eat the whole bag. "Most people eat the whole bag for a meal," says Yoko Difrancia, company marketing supervisor. "The whole bag is more realistic."
Which means that if you were feeling a need to binge, you could pound down a pile of noodles, a couple brews and a pint of "ice cream" all for 300 calories -- the same as one McDonald's cheeseburger.
Consumers seem to be buying it. Sales of Arctic Zero, introduced in 2009, have grown 15 to 20 percent per month for the past 18 months, Pandhi says.
Arctic Zero is made primarily of whey protein and gets its sweetness from organic monk fruit, an Asian gourd the company says is 150 times sweeter than sugar. Tofu Shirataki noodles are made by blending tofu and the root of konnyaku, an Asian yam.
Health advocates, dietitians and government programs decry the American propensity to overindulge. But what if we were meant to eat as much as possible? UCLA neuroscientist Dean Buonomano says in his new book, "Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives," that the human brain was designed to guide us through a world in which dying from starvation was a greater possibility than becoming obese.
"There is little doubt that our proclivity toward overeating is in part a product of the fact that we were programmed to derive pleasure from eating, and that many of us have essentially unlimited amounts of food at our disposal," Buonomano said.
Penn State professor Barbara Rolls promotes what she calls volumetrics, an approach that shifts the focus from reducing portion size to reducing the number of calories per portion.
Rolls says the solution is not to reduce the volume of food on the plate, but the number of calories in the same volume. She urges people to do that by adding plenty of water-rich, calorie-light foods, such as fruits and vegetables. "The idea is not that you can or should eat a much bigger volume than you typically do," she says. "It's that if you eat your usual amount you're going to feel full but with fewer calories.