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Snacking dieters face a growing list of options

/ Source: The Associated Press

The plan was to enjoy a few cookies while watching TV. But by the time Dorine Hanson got up from the couch, she'd polished off the entire bag.

The days of such mindless snacking are history now that Hanson relies on portion-control packs that tell her when it's time to stop.

"Otherwise, I'll just keep eating," she said. "I'll sit there and end up eating 10. Or more."

In a nation notoriously helpless when it comes to portion control, food companies are doing the calorie-counting for consumers by serving up ever more snacks at about 100 calories a pop.

Kellogg's this summer launched its 100-calorie Right Bites chocolate chip and Sandies cookies, following Nabisco's introduction of 100-calorie snacks last year and Jell-O's recent Sundae Toppers at 110 calories a cup.

General Mills offers a microwavable packet that cooks up 100 calories worth of butter popcorn. The company also is now trumpeting its Progresso Soups as having just 100 calories per serving, a new marketing strategy to highlight what the two-serving cans have always offered.

The sudden desire for moderation marks a pivotal reversal in a 40-year trend where consumers happily gobbled down ever-ballooning portions, said David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University. Now with about two-thirds of U.S. adults overweight, and almost half of those considered obese, health officials are targeting portion sizes as a culprit.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the average bagel 20 years ago was 3 inches in diameter and 140 calories; today it's 6 inches across and about 350 calories.

And people don't think twice about finishing a "serving" — no matter how big.

"People eat in packages. We eat what's on our plate," Levitsky said. "There's this view that if someone determines a portion that's appropriate, we eat it."

The government recommends a daily intake of about 1,600 calories for women and 2,200 for men. But people can unwittingly inhale half that amount with a seemingly harmless "snack" of cookies or chips.

Portion-control packaging

For Albany resident Hanson, the portion-control packs take that burden away from her. Now she's keeping her snacking — and weight — under control by sharing a bag or two of the portion-control bags with her young children.

Hanson wishes more products — like her favorite potato chips — came in similar packaging.

That could happen soon. Depending on the success of Right Bites, Kellogg's plans to expand on the four varieties that were introduced this summer, company officials said.

Nabisco meanwhile has already expanded its 100-calorie pack lineup to include Oreo Thin Crisps, Cheese Nips and Honey Maid Graham Crackers.

The portion-control packaging is popular because it responds to dual trends in the food industry _ the desire for convenience and healthier options, said Todd Hultquist, spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute in Washington. Giving people nice, round numbers like 100 to work with, makes it easier to count calories.

Even with Americans opting for more modest choices, their appetite for snacks is growing.

Americans now consume about 25 percent of their daily calories from snacks, up from 20 percent a decade ago, largely because of the growing number of products, Levitsky said.

The snack food market in 2003 was estimated at $47.1 billion, up $7.2 billion from 1999, according to Maryland-based Market Research. By 2008, the firm estimates the market for snack foods will grow to $57.3 billion, with more Americans opting for healthier choices like pre-cut apple slices, single portion bags of baby carrots or low-calorie snacks.

While the smaller portions are a good alternative to oversized bags of chips and cookies, Levitsky cautioned they could ultimately undermine dieters' goals by triggering a binge.

That's what happened to Albany resident Jill O'Malley, who tried the 100-calorie packs about a year ago.

"I ended up eating six bags," O'Malley said.

Now she's just banished the treats altogether rather than tempt herself with a taste.