Quita Kilos, which loosely translates as "Lose Weight," might be considered the "Weight Watchers" or "Jenny Craig" of Mexico. Based in Monterey, Mexico, the firm helps weight-conscious consumers shed kilos with a disciplined program consisting of weekly classes covering health/nutrition topics and weekly menus of low-calorie nutritious meals.

The Quita Kilos diet consists of three weekly menus — one each for women, men and teenagers — each consisting of 21 meals (three per day) formulated to provide about one-third fewer calories than their typical equivalents while maintaining recommended nutritional values. Meals are prepared and packaged in a small, two-story 320 square-meter plant started-up two years ago to keep pace with the growing Monterey market.

Beyond Monterey, Quita Kilos has expanded nationwide into 40 other cities stretching from Ensenada in Northern Baja California to Villa Hermosa in Tabasco (near the Guatemalan border) in the south. Quita Kilos members in these markets are supplied with pickup meals by 31 smaller kitchens.

Wide menu

Except for two van drivers, Quita Kilos' Monterey plant is operated by an all-female staff of 50, supervised by Plant Manager Ramona Reyes Garcia. Foods are formulated by Nutritionist Lucia Aldape de Esqueda.

The plant currently produces about 40 different lunch and dinner meals based on veal, chicken, beef, pork, liver, tongue and fish: 20 typical Mexican entrees such as tortillas, tamales, nopales and frijoles; eight varieties of breakfast breads incorporating fruits or vegetables such as cherries, pineapple, carrot and banana; dessert and snack items including fruit pies, individual fruit pies (empanadas), crackers (galletas) and sweet goods (dulces and paletas). Meal examples: chicken with cheese sauce; meat-stuffed peppers; chicken salad; spaghetti with beef. Ice cream, salad dressings and yogurts are co-packed under the Quita Kilos brand by other processors. Example: Low-calorie ice cream and sherbet are supplied in 20 flavors by the D'Lite Co., headed by former Quita Kilos employee Virginia Cantu.

Vac-pack and MAP

Meals are currently vacuum-packaged and frozen, while bakery items packaged using MAP (modified atmosphere packaging) in a small clean room.

On the plant's first floor, meal entrees are prepared on equipment including Wolf ovens and griddles and a Villamex tortilla machine, heat-sealed in nylon/polyethylene bags on a foot-pedal machine, vacuumed in Turbovac and Bizerba vacuum-packaging equipment, then frozen in a walk-in freezer at -10 degrees C (-14 degrees F). Production samples are sent for microbiological testing to labs at the nearby University of Nuevo Leon.

The plant's second floor is the bakery, equipped with Kitchen Aid mixers, a Villamex forming machine (for pie shells), a Villamex hand-fed divider/molder, three Vulcan rack ovens and three double-deck San-Son and Flamma convection ovens. Baked products are lowered on trays via dumb waiter to the packaging area on the first floor.

Because they contain no preservatives, Quita Kilos bakery products formerly had a shelf life of only three days. But many program members prefer to purchase their menus for an entire week. In her search to extend product shelf life, Rodriguez encountered Redex Corp. (Schaumburg, IL), which specializes in MAP technology. Redex helped Quita Kilos design a clean room, assisted with microbiological and shelf life studies, determined the gas formula needed and supplied the packaging materials and equipment for MAP.

The small but space-saving clean room, measuring only 2 x 31/2 meters (6 1/2 x 11 ft.), is equipped with HEPA filtration, overpressure and a programmable, semi-automatic Meca-Redex 1001 MAP machine with twin sealing molds mounted in a drawer and film accessible above from a back-mounted roll. The machine cycles up to six times per minute to inject a mixture of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen (N2) into pre-formed rigid barrier-plastic containers and seal the containers at rate of 12 per minute.

Bakery products received hot from the oven, when they are microbiologically free, are manually loaded by gloved employees into Redex containers measuring 9 1/2 x 7 1/4 x 2 1/2 inches. Each package consists of three components: a rigid tray made of high-temperature-resistant PVC (polyvinyl chloride) with EVOH (ethylene vinyl alcohol) oxygen barrier and sealant; an ultra-load density PE (polyethylene) film with anti-fog coating; and a rigid PVC/EVOH lid with sealant. The active, "hydrophobic" anti-fog layer actually repels moisture prevent condensation on the underside of the film. When sealed to each other, lid and tray flanges create a tear-off seal around the perimeter of the container.

Before entering the clean room, the operator sanitizes her hands and dons a lab coat, face mask, gloves and hair net. To operate the machine, she manually loads two filled trays into the molds, positions film and lids over the containers, pushes the drawer under the sealing head and pushes a button to start the cycle: air evacuation, gas injection, film cut to container shape; film and lid sealed to container; return to atmosphere. She then pulls the drawer open and the tray partially rises to ease package removal. Sealed packages are trayed and dollied-out for tempering in the package.

MAP-packaging under clean-room conditions has dramatically increased the shelf life of Quita Kilos bakery products from three to 15 days, says Aldape. Next step: Following shelf life studies at the university, MAP fresh meals will replace the frozen meals.