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 Artic 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., whose pints of "ice cream replacement" prominently feature the 150-calorie message.
"We feel like a serving is an entire pint. 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," says Pandhi.
Similarly, commercials for MGD 64, a 64-calorie beer from Chicago-based MillerCoors being heavily marketed this year, pits a tiny martini or petite glass of wine against a cool, full bottle of brew. Meanwhile, the website for its competitor, Anheuser-Busch's Bud Select 55, promises no pain and no gain, boasting that you can burn off the product's 55 calories with — ready? — a 54-minute nap.
And though Tofu Shirataki noodles from California-based House Foods America Corporation, 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, the company's 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.
Many of these products are achieving their low-calorie status with different ingredients than similar products in the past. 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 over indulge. 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 in the modern world many of us have essentially unlimited amounts of food at our disposal," Buonomano said via e-mail.
In 2000, Penn State professor Barbara Rolls began promoting what she calls volumetrics, an approach to healthy eating that shifts the focus from reducing portion size to reducing the number of calories per portion.
"When people sit down to a meal and don't know the calorie count they tend to take a set amount by weight and volume," says Rolls, whose new book "The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet" will be published next year.
So she says the solution is not to reduce the volume of food on the plate, but rather the number of calories in the same volume (called the calorie density). 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," Rolls says. "It's that if you eat your usual amount you're going to feel full but with fewer calories.
Some experts say there's a place for these ultra-low calorie products in that kind of equation. Lisa Lillien, creator of the daily e-mail service Hungry-Girl.com and author of five cookbooks, relies on many specific products, including Tofu Shirataki noodles, to create satisfying, abundant, but still calorically light meals.
"The Hungry Girl philosophy is, 'How do you swap out certain foods for other foods so you can make recipes taste great but still come in with fewer calories?'" Lillien says. "I want to get the biggest bang for my calorie buck because I like eating a lot of food."
Health advocates and dietitians remain committed to the idea that portion sizes must come down. But they say these products could offer baby steps to people struggling to control their weight. And they might also be useful when you feel that binge coming on.
"We have some die-hard fans who've told us they've eaten five or six pints in a day," says Pandhi. "We believe everything should be eaten in moderation. But if you're going to choose five or six pints of ice cream, it's definitely healthier to choose our product than a full-fat premium ice cream."