- CHICAGO (Reuters) - Fat is back, and food companies are responding --
turning up the taste as well as the fat grams -- in pursuit of consumers'
increasingly demanding palates.
- "Consumers got burned out on the
first generation of fat-free foods," said Tom Vierhile, general manager
of Marketing Intelligence Service, a new-product tracking service based
in Naples, N.Y. "People have come to an understanding that they'd
rather consume small amounts of the good stuff rather than avoid it altogether
and consume foods that don't taste good."
- Vierhile notes a "huge contraction"
in introductions of products making nonfat and reduced-fat claims. "These
products are nonexistent," he said in a recent interview.
- In 1995, some 21 percent of all new products
made such claims, he said.
- Replacing them are decadent introductions
like Newman's Own All Natural Ice Cream, introduced this summer in varieties
such as Pistol Packin' Praline Pecan, whose package exclaims, "Praise
the Lord and pass the damnutrition."
- Popcorn makers this year slid back to
their buttery beginnings with new varieties such as Jolly Time's Blast
O Butter and Act II's 2000 Extreme Butter, boasting 200 percent more butter
than any leading brand. "The popcorn guys are saying, 'Who cares about
fat. Bring on the butter. Make it swim,"' Vierhile said.
- Despite the fat-free backlash, experts
said consumers haven't given up on wellness. They're just demanding food
that tastes good. "It has to taste great. If it doesn't, consumers
will reject it," said Stephanie Williams, who has tracked consumers'
tastes for 29 years as director of food kitchens at Philip Morris Cos.'
Kraft Foods Inc.
- Williams said consumers have become more
proactive about what they eat. "Consumers have been hearing about
what to avoid for years, and frankly, they're tired of it and are taking
matters into their own hands," she said.
- Kraft this month will try to quell consumers'
increasing impatience with good-for-you foods that taste bad. The company
is rolling out Light Done Right, an eight-flavor line of reduced-fat salad
dressings that promises all of the taste, but 50 percent less fat and 33
percent fewer calories than regular salad dressings.
- "Consumers are not willing to compromise
on taste when they're eating reduced-fat products," said Jennifer
Beck, associate brand manager at Kraft. She said the new reduced-fat line
contains no fillers. "We just took out oil and improved the flavor
profile," she said.
- Kraft will support the salad dressings
through national newspaper inserts and in-store coupons early next month.
A national TV campaign from Leo Burnett Co. in Chicago, will follow in
January. Beck declined to disclose the budget, but said it will comprise
"an important part of our advertising in 1999."
- Nabisco Biscuit Co., whose SnackWell's
Devil's Food Cookie Cakes once caused supermarket stampedes, also is responding
to consumers' increased taste demands. The company reformulated its product
line this summer, increasing the fat content in some varieties by as much
as 50 percent and adding two new indulgent flavors -- Mint Cream and Caramel
Delights -- this month.
- When Nabisco first introduced SnackWell's
in 1992, consumers trailed delivery trucks in search of the reduced-fat
treats, spawning an advertising campaign from Foote, Cone & Belding,
New York, featuring a fictitious SnackWell's "Cookie Man" hounded
by Devil's Food devotees.
- Demand for SnackWell's has dropped precipitously
since then. According to Information Resources Inc. of Chicago, supermarket
sales of SnackWell's cookies dropped 23.6 percent to $146.8 million for
the 52 weeks ended May 24, compared with a 1.1 percent increase in the
overall market during the same period.
- "Consumers have raised the bar on
the taste profile," said Ann Smith, a SnackWell's spokeswoman. "It
needs to taste great." Smith said consumers who once demanded fat-free
products have evolved in the six years since SnackWell's' introduction.
"Consumers have not walked away from wellness, but they are willing
to accept a half gram or gram of fat if you're going to dramatically improve
- Sara Lee Bakery of Chicago is betting
$20 million that consumers will accept a bit more than that. The company
is undertaking its biggest new-product push in 10 years in the hopes that
consumers want to indulge in a bite of chocolate-drenched cheesecake.
- "Five years ago, the trend was total
fat avoidance," said Laura Shapira, senior marketing manager responsible
for Sara Lee's cheesecake business. "The pendulum has shifted. Consumers
want to indulge themselves in smart ways. When they want a treat, they
really want a treat. They just don't want to overdo it."
- To satisfy those cravings, Sara Lee in
May launched Cheesecake Bites and Cheesecake Singles in Chicago and San
Francisco. With 6 grams of fat and 100 calories, Cheesecake Bites allow
consumers to get a taste of indulgence without going overboard, Shapira
said. The individually wrapped bites and single slices of cheesecake can
be eaten directly from the freezer.
- "Until now, you couldn't do that
with cheesecake," she said.