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Healthy sales prove 'thin' is still in.

At a time when health-related issues make front page news, it's little wonder that dietetic and low-calorie foods have broader appeal than ever before. Consumers, bent on being fit, not fat, are displaying hearty appetites for anything that's low in calories, sugar, sodium, cholesterol or chemical additives.

According to a recent study conducted for the Calorie Control Council, an association of manufacturers and suppliers of dietary foods and beverages, 68 million Americans now use low-calorie products, up more than 60% during the past six years. Some are on medically restricted diets, others are following self-imposed health regimens, and many are fighting the battle of the bulge. Whatever the consumer motivation to buy these products, traditional "diet section" brands and "lite" versions of mainline national brands are cashing in on the craze.

At Chicago Dietetic, which manufacturers the Featherweight line of dietetic items, Vice President of Marketing Ron Gondek says business last year was exceptionally good. "We enjoyed a sizable increase over the year before, and we attribute this to the interest in nutrition and to the press coverage."

The Featherweight line of 200 products appeals first and foremost to the medically directed, but is also popular among "cosmetic dieters," says Gondek. He adds that the line is handled through specialty food distributors and is designed to be merchandised as a complete section.

Another dietetic section standby. Nutradiet from S&W Fine Foods, San Mateo, Calif., was extended last year to include tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, blueberry and strawberry syrups and salad dressings.

Also traditionally positioned in the dietetic area is the Diet Delight line of canned fruit products, which was acquired last year by San Francisco's Tri-Valley Growers from California Canners & Growers, which went bankrupt. Dietetic canned fruits was one category that slackened off last year. Dan Thornton, marketing manager of brands, says the Diet Delight line, which he calls "the category leader--with two-thirds of the business," went the way of the category last year, and suffered some declines.

According to Dancer Fitzgerald Sample's New Product News, 91 low-calorie foods were introduced last year. At Chicago Dietetic, Featherweight's recent intros include two low-sodium snacks--corn chips and cheese curls--and a calorie-reduced, low-sodium Caesar salad dressing. Last year, Featherweight started to replace saccharin in some products--like gelatin and puddings--with NutraSweet, the brand name for the tabletop sweetener, aspartame, manufactured by Chicago-based G.D. Searle & Co. Most recently, the line's hot cocoa mix has joined the increasing number of sugar free products throughout the store that have switched to NutraSweet.

Spokesman Susan Puhr of Borden Inc., Columbus, Ohio, says the company's Sugar-Free Wyler's soft drink mix with NutraSweet, and its Lite Line drink mixes with aspartame, are both "going great guns." She points out that none of Borden's Lite Line items--with the exception of its cheeses--are positioned as "dietetic." New Lite Line intros last year also included cheese curls, tortilla chips and potato chips and three additional cheeses, Low Cholesterol, Sodium-lite and Reduced Sodium. The newest Lite Line product, a pound cake with one-third less fat than its traditional counterpart, came out in February and is being sold through Borden's Drake's Bakery Operation in the Northeast. Sugar substitutes

G.D. Searle's NutraSweet, sold directly to consumers under the brand name of Equal, caused quite a stir in the sugar substitute category last year. Rolled out nationally in late 1982, the product is credited with raising dollar sales of the category dramatically. The main reason is that Equal is four times the price of other low-calorie sweeteners on the market, making it the dollar share leader. But as far as units are concerned. Cumberland Packing Company's saccharine-based Sweet 'N Low still leads the way.

Marvin Eisenstadt of Cumberland Packing says, "Sweet 'N Low had an 80% market share before; now it has a 60% share in terms of units--but of a much greater market." The sweetener's dollar share last year was 30%.

A spokesperson at Alberto-Culver, which produces Sugar Twin, the number three sugar substitute product in terms of both units and dollars, says the saccharin-based sweetener held up well.

Searle's Bill Ferreira, senior product manager for Equal, concurs. "Equal hasn't been taking so much business away from the saccharin-based products. Two-thirds of Equal's usage comes from sugar users." He says Equal accounted for 45% of the category's dollar share last year and expects that to increase to 60% for 1984.

Only time will tell whether the negative press that aspartame received earlier in the year will have any impact on Equal's 1984 sales. It concerned a claim that asparatame in soft drinks could break down into toxic levels of methyl alcohol at high temperatures." We saw no dramatic downturn in sales, even though equal was shown on TV, along with other products containing aspartame," says Ferreira, adding that the FDA gave the product a "clean bill of health." Eisenstadt says Sweet 'N Low has benefited from Equal's aggressive ad campaign in the past, but reports that his company now has some ad plans of its own. Spending for advertising, promotion and public relations in '84 will be $10 million, about a 20% increase over last year.

According to Ferreira, Equal's support includes network and cable TV and print. Sugar Twin has also stepped up its promotional activities, and has already had a sweepstakes promo and a coupon promotion this year. Salt substitutes

Consumers haven't exactly been taking reports on the harmful effects of sodium with a grain of salt. According to an A.C. Nielsen report, 14.6 million pounds of light salt and salt subsitutes were purchased in grocery stores last year, up from 9.9 million pounds in 1980. Still, some feel the level of sodium interest peaked about a year ago, while others say the category is still worth its salt.

Some items--like Alberto-Culver's Mrs. Dash--are salt alternative seasoning blends that do not resemble salt and are sold in the spice section rather than the dietetic area. This is often true of other salt-like items such as Morton Lite Salt, Morton Salt Substitute, Norcliff-Thayer's No Salt, Lawry's Seasoned Salt Free and Durkee's Light Seasoned Salt. According to an Alberto Culver spokesman, "The salt substitute category last year was up at retail by about 50% vs. a year ago." He attributes this to the introduction of Mrs. Dash last July, adding that if the line was not taken into account when compiliing sales data for the category, the numbers would decline dramatically. The seasing blend, has just added a new low-pepper, no-garlic variety.

At Morton, Ray Buschmann, vice president and counsel, says sales of Morton Salt Substitute have been booming the last couple of years. "We really intended for the product to be for the person on a restricted diet. It wasn't until recently, with the sodium concern, that it has received greater interest on the part of the general population."

Consumers couldn't help but notice the category back in 1981 when Norcliff-Thayer supported its then-new No Salt entry with a megabuck ad blitz. Other manufacturers, like Cumberland Packing Co., which produces Nu-Salt, hitched a free ride and benefited greatly.

This time around, Cumberland is planning some promotion of its own. The company will spend four to six times more than it did last year to support the product.

While observers report that No Salt was literally flying off the shelf during its ad campaign, indications are that sales may have fallen offen off considerably when the advertising was cut back.
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Title Annotation:diet and low-calorie foods
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:Jul 1, 1984
Previous Article:A dip in sales.
Next Article:Fruitful times for dried products.

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