Meet the Cookie Monsters
In creating a more nutritious snack -- that doesn't taste like engine lubricant -- food scientists bake funky failures by the batch.
By Aaron Zitner, Times Staff Writer, January 16, 2004
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For a truly distasteful treat, it's hard to top Colleen Zammer's orange ice cream. It starts off sweet as a summer day — then wallops the tongue with a taste like rancid fish, so strong you can almost smell the fins and scales.
Then again, Zammer's smoothies can be pretty bad too: all liquid on top, with globs of protein at the bottom. And how about the simple butter cookie? Hers taste as if they were baked under the hood of a diesel truck.
It's a snack-food house of horrors in Zammer's industrial kitchen, a place where foods are taken apart, outfitted with new ingredients and pieced back together. Zammer may cut the carbs. Or swap one type of fat for another. Or mix in flavorings, nutrients or other additives.
The goal is to rebuild foods so that they are "healthier," with less to clog the arteries or lard the waistline. But Zammer, a consultant to the processed-food industry, sometimes turns the foods into foul-tasting Frankensteins, as well. Despite decades of work, she and other food scientists are still grappling with how to boost the nutritional value of snacks and other fare without mangling the taste.
The effort is called food reformulation, and it is taking a central role in the nation's battle against obesity and heart disease. Snack giant Kraft Foods is trying to remake its legendary Oreo cookie with less sugar and fat and fewer calories. Kellogg says it may cut fat from its Keebler cookies.
And a variety of other food companies, from McDonald's to Frito-Lay, have been scrambling to find replacements for trans fats, considered a public menace by many nutritionists. Trans fats have no more calories than other fats but are thought to be particularly hard on the arteries.
Accused of fattening their profits by fattening the nation, the food giants want to show that they are taking health concerns seriously. With two-thirds of Americans considered overweight or obese, reformulation is part of the industry's response to lawmakers, nutritionists and trial lawyers who say food companies deserve a super-size portion of the blame.
Some of the industry's biggest critics say reformulating certain foods could improve public health.
"In some cases it can make a big difference, changing a cookie from one that clogs the arteries to one that doesn't," said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington consumer advocacy group that tracks nutrition issues. "It's a way to eat healthier that's about as easy as it gets, because you keep eating the same foods as before. They just won't be as bad for you."
But reformulated foods face a big hurdle.
"Products that are fat-free or sugar-free — there's often a taste trade-off there," said Michael Mudd, a Kraft spokesman. "The healthiest food in the world will do no good if no one eats it."
That is where Colleen Zammer comes in. She puts a new face on foods that have been stripped of some of their most appealing ingredients.
"When you take something out of a food, you change its whole character," said Zammer, who runs the 15-person food and nutrition unit at Tiax LLC, a consulting firm just outside Boston that gave Cap'n Crunch cereal its familiar vanilla-caramel flavoring and has helped Procter & Gamble, Tropicana and others develop new products.
"Fat tastes good," she said. "It feels good in the mouth. It's a good way to bind things together. And when you take it out, there's no single ingredient that can be added to perform all of those functions.
"Our job is to put foods back together so that they look like the original, but they are made up of better components."
One recent day in the Tiax kitchen, the work of putting foods back together was hitting a few snags. Navigating amid steel storage racks and factory-strength cooking equipment, product developer Paul Darrigo pulled a tray of small, doughy chips out of an oven and set it on a counter. Then, he and Zammer began trying to break the chips in half.
They did not like what they heard.
A client had asked Zammer to develop a low-carbohydrate version of a potato chip or Cheez Doodle-style snack. In those foods, a big, satisfying crunch is crucial, and it comes largely from the thin bubbles that arise on the surface of the potatoes or other carbohydrates when they are fried. Zammer calls it "a glassy, crispy texture that melts quickly in the mouth."
But these warm disks were more like rubber pucks. Because Zammer had to cut fat and carbohydrates, they were made mostly from dense, baked soy protein.
She and Darrigo tore at the disks.
"They bend, but they're not breaking," Zammer lamented. "They don't have any snap! That means there's still too much moisture in the dough."
"I'll try baking them longer," Darrigo offered.
"The texture of a snack is incredibly important, which is why we're working on that first," Zammer said. Only after perfecting the crunch would her team start working out the flavorings.
Around her, in various tubs and containers, were the results of other attempts. Some disks had the rigid quality of a pretzel, not the fragile crisp she was aiming for. Others were hollow globs that resembled rubber ravioli.
"Maybe the answer is to use a different soy protein. There are hundreds of them," Zammer said. Maybe the right crunch would come from mixing in more fiber, or cooking the snack with jets of hot air, not in a conventional oven. Already, the team had tried 30 formulations, and it would make at least 100 more.
Creating a food requires the laboratory skills of a chemist and the sensitive palate of a wine expert. To a food scientist, nothing tastes simply good or bad. Instead, each food has a "flavor system," a carefully calibrated formulation that might include fats, flavorings, enzymes, proteins, binding agents, moisture-trapping humectants or other additives.
Most people see a chocolate chip cookie. Zammer sees a flour-based flavor system of aromatics and buffers and modified starches. And chocolate chips.
The Tiax staff has had many successes. Slim-Fast meal-replacement beverages came from its kitchen. So did Dreyer's reduced-calorie ice cream.
But there is also a certain pleasure in the failures that arise along the way.
"Once we tried to make an ice cream using the Slim-Fast powder. It was awful, like cardboard — chalky, wheaty," said Vanik Petrossian, a Tiax food scientist.
"We worked on a low-fat hot dog, and some of them were really bad," Zammer recalled. "We did get a good product, but the disasters along the way were — I don't know if rotting flesh is the right description, but maybe burning hair."
As a consultant, the company helps clients figure out which foods to create, and how to reformulate others. Similar work goes on at all the big snack and beverage companies, most often by in-house food scientists and marketing experts.
But the industry is secretive, and the Keebler Elves are not allowing outsiders to visit their treehouse. "For competitive reasons, we don't talk about research," said a spokeswoman at Kellogg, which makes Keebler cookies.
Even if the Tiax team comes up with a good-tasting chip or cookie, there is no guarantee fickle consumers will accept it, or even that the food can help Americans take in their belts a notch. After all, the nation has just come off a low-fat food binge — and has wound up heavier.
The premise of low-fat foods was simple: A gram of fat has nine calories, but a gram of carbohydrate or protein has only four. Replace fats with those lower-calorie ingredients, and people would lose weight and cut their risk of heart disease.
Some called it the "SnackWell's revolution," after the no-fat devil's food cookie that caused a buying frenzy after its introduction in 1992.
"The idea was that only fat calories counted," said Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. "It was a bad idea, and if anything the country got fatter with the promotion of these low-fat products."
What went wrong? To begin with, some people overate the low-fat foods — "four boxes of SnackWell's, instead of one," Zammer said.
Some companies were so eager to capitalize on the low-fat craze that they put marginally palatable foods on the market. Nonfat cheeses tasted like rubber bands. Cookies were stiff. But consumers, it turned out, were not willing to trade away taste in return for a "healthier" snack.
"People had a bad experience, and never returned to nonfat foods again," Wootan said.
Even worse, foods that tasted like sawdust or cardboard were not necessarily more nutritious. Remove fat from a salad dressing, for example, and it tastes like watery vinegar. To hide the tartness and improve the texture, Zammer said, some companies added sugar and starches — creating a dressing that had more calories than the full-fat version.
The essential error, said Willett, was assuming that all fats are unhealthful. In fact, he and many other nutritionists now believe that unsaturated fats, such as olive oil and canola oil, should be among the cornerstones of the diet because they reduce coronary risks. The fats to eat sparingly, they say, are trans fats and saturated fats, including those found in meat.
Plenty of low-fat foods are still on the market, and some products, such as reduced-fat milks, are staples. But in essence, the low-fat cookie has crumbled. Sales of SnackWell's have slumped from $600 million in 1995 to $88 million last year, says Chicago-based market researcher Information Resources. Sales of nonfat ice creams and cheeses have tumbled since the mid-1990s, as well.
Now, Tiax and other food reformulators are positioning themselves for a revival. The obesity crisis has sparked consumer interest in products that claim to be "light" or "lean," as well as in energy bars, sports drinks and products with soy or other "good-for-you" additives.
The biggest food fad is the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, driven by the popularity of the Atkins and South Beach Diet plans. In 2000, only 28 new products were marketed as low in carbohydrates, says the Mintel Group, a market research firm in Chicago. Last year, that jumped to 307 products.
It is a big opportunity for reformulators like Tiax — if they can learn the lessons of the past: People will not "pay a taste premium" to get foods with better nutrition. All calories count, no matter their source. Reformulation can wind up making foods more caloric and less nutritious.
And beware: Today's nutrition wisdom can be tomorrow's discredited fad.
For now, foods with nutritious additives are big sellers. But in the Tiax kitchen, Zammer showed how hard they can be to create. After rummaging through a freezer, her staff brought out one bright idea that never succeeded: an ice cream fortified with Omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack.
Several companies have made infant formula with Omega-3s, because they also are linked to enhanced brain development. Three years ago, Tiax was working on a similar product.
"Then, a colleague said: 'Why not try it in ice cream?' " Zammer recalled. "If you're going to eat an unhealthy product, why not make it healthy?"
But the taste and odor of Omega-3s are distinctive, often like rotting fish. Among other sources, they come from the eye sockets of tuna.
Zammer offered a spoonful of an early version of the ice cream. The taste: Not bad at all, at least to start. To mask the Omega-3s, her team had used a pleasant candied-orange flavoring.
One bite, two bites — so far, so good. But orange is a volatile flavoring, and the mild, Creamsicle fog soon lifted. What was left was fishy and metallic, similar, one could imagine, to the sensation of sucking on nickels and dimes.
"Or on a tuna can," Zammer offered.
Zammer said her group ultimately found a way to hide the fishy off-notes. Still the product never made it to grocery shelves.
"Apparently," she said, "the world didn't need an ice cream with fish oil."
As they create their low-carbohydrate snack, the staff will experiment with soy proteins, flavorings and baking methods. Each result will be sampled and compared to a chip or cheese snack already on the market — a gold standard for Zammer's team.
To show how the process works, Zammer's staff baked five batches of cookies, each identical except for the type of fat used.
First up: an ordinary butter cookie.
To a casual snacker, the butter cookie tasted … buttery. But to Patricia Keane, the food unit's lead "sensory analyst," the cookie offered a symphony of sensations that she recorded on a three-point scale.
After a mincing bite, Keane assigned a score to the cookie for its starchy, buttery, burnt-sugar and toasty-grain flavors. With its rich taste, caramel color and perfectly round shape, the butter cookie was what cookies with cheaper — or healthier — fats aspired to be.
None of the others could match it. A cookie made with Crisco was oily rather than buttery, and it added harmful trans fats. A cookie made with canola oil contained healthier fats. But because canola oil breaks down quickly, it had a mildly bitter taste.
"It has a fishy character to it," said Mary Nash, who had baked the cookies.
The fourth cookie tasted like sandpaper because it had no fat at all. The final cookie was even less appetizing. It looked something like a puddle of water, and the flavor had a hint of engine lubricant — or was that Magic Marker? No, it was a "fake fat," one of the many laboratory concoctions that function like fat but carry fewer calories.
"The point of all this," Zammer said, "is that you have options when you try to make a 'healthier' cookie.
"As you change just the type of fat — not even the amount — it has a big impact."
There are more healthful alternatives to butter, a saturated fat, she said. But none gives the same look or taste.
Tiax is agnostic, Zammer said, on whether the low-fat and low-carbohydrate trends offer an effective way to lose weight. But it is convinced its products are good for public health.
Willett, the Harvard nutritionist, agreed that some low-fat and low-carbohydrate foods can be more healthful than conventional products. But he has his doubts about the need to invent foods. Instead, he said, the industry could do a better job of marketing existing healthy foods.
"One example is the baby carrot," Willett said. "It's gotten people to eat a lot more carrots. They're tender and sweet, and they are in these little packets."
And he believes there are some snack foods that reformulation cannot help.
"I can't think of a healthy Oreo," Willett said. "There are some things that are just not redeemable."