Health and Wellness Counting calories

by Eric Schroeder
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With the whirlwind promotion that hoisted low-carbohydrate products into the spotlight now but a distant memory, the food and beverage industry has shifted course. Products touting reduced calories now headline health and wellness initiatives at many of the world’s largest food and beverage companies, relegating once-popular low-carb tags to second fiddle.

So why the shift in philosophy? While it might be easy to say companies are just looking for the next "big thing" to spark sales, that is not necessarily the case. More likely it appears food and beverage companies have taken to heart the release of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 in January.

The new edition of the Dietary Guidelines has placed greater emphasis on reducing caloric consumption and increasing exercise. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommend balancing calories between the amount an individual consumes and the amount of calories he or she burns.

Even before seeing the revised food guidance graphic unveiled last week (see story on Page 1), food and beverage manufacturers showed considerable willingness to take the first steps toward incorporating healthier to their product lines.

Consumer demands

A survey conducted in late December by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. on behalf of the Grocery Manufacturers of America captured the changing eating trends of Americans even before the release of the Dietary Guidelines.

According to the survey, 73% of consumers said they were buying more nutritious and healthy foods and beverages than in the past. Leading the charge was 66% of respondents who said they were looking for products made with whole, unrefined grains. Not far behind, however, were consumers looking for reduced- and lowcalorie products. Fifty-four per cent fell into that category while 64% of the consumers surveyed said they were trying to reduce caloric intake.

"Today, consumers know more about nutrition than ever before, and they are using that information to choose foods and beverages that meet their health goals," said Alison Kretser, senior director of scientific and nutrition policy with G.M.A.

The beverage wars

If events play out as expected, the summer of 2005 might become known in the beverage industry as the year of the "Calorie Crusade." Beverage behemoths PepsiCo Inc. and The Coca-Cola Co. both have taken steps to increase sales among health-conscious consumers by launching zero-calorie or low-calorie versions of their popular sodas.

PepsiCo has reformulated its Pepsi One product to capitalize on the trend away from calories. First introduced in 1998, the product did not fare well, but the company hopes that a new formulation with the sweetener Splenda and increased promotion will generate better returns. With one calorie, Pepsi One compares with Diet Pepsi (0 calories), Pepsi Edge (70 calories) and regular Pepsi (150 calories). The reformulated version of Pepsi One will hit store shelves next month.

In June, Coca-Cola will make its foray into the no-calorie category with the introduction of Coca-Cola Zero, a new drink that will be marketed to consumers aged 18 to 30 who don’t drink Diet Coke, the No. 1 selling diet drink.

Both the Pepsi One and Coca-Cola Zero launches signal a movement by the beverage companies to cut into the sales of bottled water and diet sodas, both of which have hurt regular soda sales. In the 52-week period ended Dec. 25, bottled water sales totaled $3,609,280,260, up 9.1% from the same year-ago period, according to ACNielsen Scantrack data. Diet soda sales climbed 3.2% during the same time frame, while regular soda sales fell 2.7%.

Labels — they are changing

Count Sara Lee Bakery Group among those grain-based foods companies that see reduced-calorie products playing a more prominent role in consumers’ buying decisions. The St. Louis-based company introduced its Sara Lee Delightful brand in the final week of 2003 to meet the nutritional needs of consumers watching carbohydrate and calorie intake.

At the time, the company promoted the low-carb benefits of the bread, but now plans are in place to shift focus to the low-calorie attributes of the bread.

"Now that low carb is waning we are going to change the hierarchy of the benefits on the packaging," said Peter A. Reiner, senior vice-president of marketing, Sara Lee Bakery Group. "So, calories will take a more prominent role, and we’re going to put more emphasis against the lower sugar content.

"We didn’t change the product. We didn’t change the name. We didn’t change anything except the positioning of those benefits on the packaging."

Kansas City-based pasta maker American Italian Pasta Co. is another company that has changed course, dialing down its emphasis on low carbs and repositioning its products to increase the emphasis on its lower calorie and higher fiber benefits. The step was needed after sales of the company’s reduced-carbohydrate pasta floundered.

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