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Less is more

Low-fat and fat-free foods are so five minutes ago. The latest exploding sector of the market is 100-calorie portioning — and other packaging that lowers calorie consumption.

Published May 20, 2006

The packaged foods industry has finally seized on the old-fashioned way to help Americans lose weight.
Eat less.

Eager to shed its image as an enabler that feeds off overweight Americans, the food industry has discovered calorie counting and portion control as growing popular options for customers seeking a healthier lifestyle.

“Now that there have been some hit products, everyone is getting in on the act,’’ said Lynn Dornblaser, who manages the Global New Product Database for Mintel International.

The trend has been shrouded by the hoopla over a plethora of other attempts by manufacturers to offer more nutritious fare (low fat, no fat, minimal preservatives, no trans fats and, in many Campbell Soups this August, sea salt to lower the sodium count).

In the past few months, everything from energy bars to Cheese Nips, Oreos and Multigrain Wheat Thins have hit the shelves in 100-calorie packs to appeal to the growing ranks of calorie counters. For most snack food makers, it’s a chance to get back customers lost long ago.

It’s a big market. Mintel International estimates that 19 percent of Americans count calories. Meanwhile, 31 percent say they are trying to lose weight and 27 percent say they are on a diet.

Thanks to all the extra packaging, however, shoppers are paying a premium for the convenience of smaller portions.

There’s nothing scientifically magical about 100 calories. It’s just easy to remember and add up if you’re running a daily tab. It’s also easier to say “heck, I can handle another bag.’’ The number quickly gained industrywide traction once Kraft Foods, which plucked the number out of thin air, racked up $128-million in first-year sales from its first line of 100-calorie-pack products.

While the 100-calorie packs proliferate, portion control is morphing into other forms.

Kraft introduced a block of Parmesan cheese that comes packed with a cheese grater for custom shaving. Unilever unveiled a line of Wishbone Salad Dressings dispensed through a Windex-style spritzer cap that sprays a 1-calorie dose per shot. Products that come in resealable bags such as Pillsbury Frozen Biscuits are on the upswing so customers can prepare only what they need. Coca-Cola last month jumped on the bandwagon with stubby, 8-ounce cans that feature a 100-calorie soft drink.

Over the years, the food industry has religiously followed every other diet fad with a host of new and improved ''me-too’’ products. But food trend analyst Phil Lempert sees portion control as a trend that won’t go away.
“I think this is a permanent change,’’ said Lempert, who markets himself as the Supermarket Guru. ''You’ll see up to 1,300 new products by the end of this year that offer portion control.’’

That’s a fraction of the 16,000 products introduced every year or the 30,000 that fill today’s typical supermarket. But 1 percent of new food products surpass $100-million in sales their inaugural year, so the march of the clones is in full force.

Some, such as 100-calorie Pringles or Pop Secret microwave popcorn, are the original formula tucked in smaller packages. Doritos Mini chips were shrunk by a third so customers get enough chewing to consider the indulgence worth the effort.

“If you’re still hungry after one bag, it’s easy to figure how much more you want to eat,’’ said Aurora Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Frito-Lay Corp.

Quaker Oats even one-upped Kraft’s 100-calorie Balance energy bars by unleashing 90-calorie Chewy Granola Bars in chocolate chunk, oatmeal raisin, baked apple, honey nut and cinnamon sugar flavors.

Nonetheless, most of the products had to be reformulated with less fat to fit under the 100-calorie limbo bar because they had to meet a standard serving size dictated by a government agency.

“So these are mostly new products, not just the same ones repackaged,’’ said Pam Becker, spokeswoman for General Mills, which boasts 100 products in 100-calorie serving sizes.

Few of the 100-calorie products received much advertising support for liftoff. Instead, sales grew from labeling and word of mouth. Articles in women’s magazines quoted people who lost weight following dieticians’ advice that the surefire way to lose weight is to count calories and control portion size.

Indeed, there’s scant mention of dieting in the few ads for portion-control products. A Yoplait Light Thick and Creamy Yogurt TV spot, for instance, features a woman chatting on the phone while wagging a spoon with a huge dollop of the 100-calorie yogurt that refuses to be flung off. The message is how thick and creamy the product is, not weight loss.

Manufacturers promote other product attributes — convenience, portability, taste — that appeal to a broader audience than just dieters.

“People today snack all day, so someone who exercises a lot already burns a lot of calories. They aren’t going to buy 100-calorie energy bars for the diet attributes,’’ said Laurie Guzzinati, a spokeswoman for Kraft Foods. “But they might pack one as a snack in a back pocket, a gym bag or purse for a between meal pick-me-up.’’
Most are sized to fit in lunch boxes.

Besides, promoting rigid diet rules Americans knowingly resist is not how feel-good marketing works.

“These products are not about sacrifice,’’ said Sheila McCusker, who tracks snack food trends for Information Resources Inc., a Chicago research firm. “They are about flavor and taste and keeping balance in a healthy lifestyle.’’

IRI surveys found Americans want it both ways. They want to eat healthier, yet they refuse to give up the indulgences. So two-thirds of consumers and half the people who describe themselves as heavy snackers say they are interested in portion-control products even if they are not trying to lose weight.

Thanks to the extra packaging, however, shoppers are paying a premium for the convenience of smaller portions.
Dietitians, who say the best way to drop pounds is to trim calorie intake, see the switch to 100-calorie packaging and other portion-control techniques as a big step in the right direction.

“These products can be a good thing, but it can be misleading for people to think all these snack products are good for you,’’ said Linda Sellers, a dietician with LifeHelp, a nutrition counseling service at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. “Doritos aren’t good for you even if you don’t eat too many.’’

She prefers her weight-loss tips for indulgences, such as eating ice cream on a stick rather than from a dish.

“Most people overestimate a half-cup when they spoon it out themselves,’’ she said.

Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.

[Last modified May 20, 2006, 17:48:53]

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