Anyone who knows me well knows my aversion to empty sugar calories. In my pre-teen days I drank TaB®. These days I only let my kids drink 100% juice, or low-calorie beverages such as Crystal Light® lemonade. And with pancakes, they get sugar-free syrup. Besides having fewer empty calories, it is also less sticky.

I remember Nutrition 101 at my alma mater, the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, when I was taught 4-4-7-9. Anyone remember that? It meant four calories per gram of carbohydrate, four calories per gram of protein, seven calories per gram of alcohol and nine calories per gram of fat. By the time I was graduating, rumor had it that not all fat calories were the same. And today we also know that not all carbohydrate calories are equal. But unfortunately, somewhere in between, Americans forgot that whatever their worth, calories are ultimately what counts.

Counting fat grams was very 90s. And carb grams-so 2004. However, what counting carbohydrate grams did is make consumers more aware of empty calories-my biggest nemesis. You can only imagine how excited I must be to report that Americans are coming around and thinking, well, like me. Calories do count, and there is no sense wasting your daily allotment on empty ones.

In the 19th Annual Report on Eating Patterns in America from the NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y., statistics show that Americans are becoming more calorie conscious. In fact, 27% say they are conscious of the calories in their meals-the highest number since 1999. The data also shows that Americans are becoming concerned about sugar in their diet. In fact, 22% of Americans are concerned about sugar, up from 20% in 2003.

Dairy processors respond

Less sugar, low sugar and no-sugar-added are phrases that have been popping up on many of the new dairy products targeting carbohydrate-conscious consumers. For example, HP Hood LLC, Chelsea, Ma., flags the fact that its Carb Countdown™ reduced-sugar low-fat yogurt contains 80% less sugar than regular low-fat yogurt. Other Carb Countdown products carry similar label statements.

And, not necessarily going after "carb counters," rather simply trying to provide today's kids with a nutrient-dense, low-calorie beverage, Dallas-based Dean Foods Co., has just rolled out Land O Lakes® 80 'N Sunny™ low-fat milk and fruit juice blend. The blend has only 80 calories per serving, and contains as much calcium as an 8-oz glass of milk, as well as just as much vitamin-C as an 8-oz glass of orange juice. Like many other low-sugar and no-sugar-added dairy products in the market today, 80 'N Sunny is sweetened with Splenda®.

"Our research told us kids love the refreshing taste," says Dave Haley, dir. of marketing for Dean Foods. "And besides tasting great, our new product helps address two critical issues with today's kids-obesity and a shortage of calcium."

According to Washington, D.C.-based American Obesity Association, obesity has risen 8.3% in children (ages 6 to 11) from 1980 to 2000, and 10.5% in teens (ages 12 to 19). Approximately 30% of both groups are considered overweight and about 15% are considered obese. Other studies have shown that 30% of children ages one to five do not get enough calcium on a daily basis. For teens, that figure rises to an average of 80%.

"We feel that once people try it, they will become a regular customer," Haley adds. "And to help consumers discover just how good this new product is, we've committed to giving away one million trial-sized samples in the Minneapolis/St. Paul, Milwaukee and Chicago markets alone." These are the initial roll-out markets. (Oddly, 80 'N Sunny is not rolling out at the time of year when weather forecasters might speak this phrase.)

Land O Lakes 80 'N Sunny comes in half-gallon cartons and in four flavors: Blue Raspberry, Fruit Punch, Orange Creme and. Strawberry Banana. Suggested retail price per carton is $2.99 per half-gallon.

Dean Foods is strategically informing consumers that 80 'N Sunny is a lower-calorie alternative to other beverages by flagging "80" in the brand name and stating calorie content on carton front panels.

Teaching consumers about calories and how excess intake contributes to weight gain is a major FDA initiative to help Americans combat obesity. And it is the perfect time to introduce lower calorie, healthful dairy foods and beverages, as it has been reported that starting next year, Pepsi and Coke products will contain more informative labeling.

Both beverage companies have been criticized for adding to the nation's obesity problems because of their empty calorie offerings. Furthermore, facing a recommendation by FDA that labels of multi-serving bottles be revised when an entire package can be consumed at one time, both Coke and Pepsi will begin providing nutritional information such as the number of calories, and carbohydrate and sugar grams for a drink's entire contents as well as for a standard 8-oz serving. Much of the criticism aimed at soft drink companies on this issue relates to the fact that a 20-oz bottle contains two-and-a-half servings. That one bottle is also usually consumed in one sitting.

What does all this mean for dairy marketers? It is likely that consumers will be going back to the basics and counting calories. In fact, according to a survey by the Calorie Control Council, Atlanta, while many Americans have been influenced by the low-carb trend, almost just as many have already started combining calorie reduction with exercise as a means to weight control.

What foods and beverages are consumers buying to cut calories? The survey found that 96% of consumers are cutting back on foods high in sugar or fat, while 81% are using low-calorie and reduced-fat products. Looks like Dean Foods is right on target with 80 'N Sunny.