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Is the rising market for healthy food global in scope, or rather provincial?

Is the Rising Market for Healthy Food Global in Scope, or Rather Provincial?

By now, frozen food industry executives should have made up their minds about the question at the head of this report. The research and the editorial reports are decisive. Yet, when did you last say that people always give up on slimming? When did you last point with scorn at over indulgence in Western countries, while stuffing your face with fish and chips, hamburgers and cream cakes? When did you last hanker for a dish of French fries while the rest of the family daintily drank a Slim fast shake or peeled an apple?

Come on, now! When did opinions published in the daily newspapers cause CEOs or managing directors to set aside a new production line for low calorie meals, or launch an advertising campaign based on health concerns? Most of us are guilty of double standards where our own appetites are concerned; yet, frozen food people should remember that there was once a time when freezing was dismissed as the work of the devil.

Public opinion about health is certainly mixed different parts of the world, which may account for the different level of performance among frozen food companies. In America and Britain, the marketing of healthy entrees has created a new segment which some players dismiss (with a note of pique) as non-existent or confused. Others long for the dear old simple days when all you had to do to secure a presence in the frozen food market was to pack peas, hamburgers or fish fingers.

The one certainty that comes back from every piece of research and from every new product launch is that health is the biggest single issue of the '90s, whether environmental health or personal health. Being fat may be unsocial, but being on your way into hospital for open heart surgery is just no sensible. The public knows that, in America and Britain anyway.

The Surgeon General's 1988 Report on Nutrition and Health opened the floodgates in the United States, but the new legislation signed by President George Bush last November focuses a spotlight on every pack on every supermarket shelf.

In Britain, the issue has had the same sort of coverage, but the editorial is not as well informed or as persistent. In America, though, one can hardly pick up a newspaper or watch television without learning of something new about cholesterol, blood pressure, food, fiber or heart surgery. Even the commercial have picked up on the difference between HDL's and LDL's.

Slimming is no longer the big thing, even though most food companies carry calorie information on packs as a matter of course. Many even try for a 300-calorie claim on the front. What customers do with this information is something else, of course, but what the food manufacturers do can be observed and analyzed.

On breakfast cereal shelves in the US in the past 10 years brands and styles have proliferated, and the amount of space given to the category has quadrupled. Spreads re-positioned themselves in the health market year ago. Fleischmann is strong in low cholesterol claims, as is Kraft, but the prize must go to Lever Bros. whose "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" is not only a brand name, but a clear product statement. Only Kellogg's on the cereal shelves has come near it with Heartwise, which is touted as a "natural, multi-grain psyllium cereal."

ConAgra Sets FF Pace

In the frozen food case, the trend setter was ConAgra with Healthy Choice entrees, followed by Weight Watchers, Stouffer's Right Choice and Budget Gourmet. And let's not overlook the growing number of soft yogurt products, of which Elan is perhaps the most notable.

Regulatory procedures are as difficult to log in America as they are in Britain. For years now, many food manufacturers have listed ingredients on their packets; others have carried basic nutrition information. Many, especially now, carry claims that have aroused wrath among professional nutritionists as well as irritation among practitioners of the English language.

"Lite" has become the allembracing word that describes a low calorie item, or a food with demonstrably low cholesterol, but all of this is to be sorted out in the next few months as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tries to interpret the provisions of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act signed by President Bush. The FDA proposals will provide guidelines for food and beverage labeling.

Phase 1 is expected to be completed by November, followed by a 14 month term of testing and proving statements and propositions. All regulations will be in effect by April 1993, the FDA says, and the first packs will be in the stores by mid-year. Labels will have to list serving size in common household measure, the number of servings in the container, and the total calories of that product per serving.

The important difference is that packs are going to have to specify cholesterol and saturated fat content, as well as spell out total carbohydrates by complex and simple carbohydrates.

In England, concern over food and health has been around since the early '80s. Public interest was aroused by a spate of research reports with provocative titles like How Fresh is Fresh?, I Know What's Good For Me, Eating What Comes Naturally, etc. Public concern has been understated and unemotional, but it was strong enough to give impetus to Marks & Spencer's bid for the chilled food market, to hysteria about listeria and to the downfall of one of Margaret Thatcher's favorite Ministers.

It has not done much for the frozen food industry. Birds Eye has been responsive with a Healthy Options range and there have been healthy moves in supermarket private label recipe dishes, but the food industry generally has been quiet and undemonstrative. Another exception is Lean Cuisine, which Nestle markets in Europe under the Findus label rather than the Stouffer brand as in the US.

You have to look around in Sainsbury's for any attempt to educate customers, but you will eventually find copies of Living Today with titles like Food for Healthy Hearts, Understanding Food Labels, and Your Food and Health.

At the Food Marketing Institute's annual supermarket convention in Chicago during May delegates were told that over 60% of retailer respondents in a 1991 survey said their menu planning had been affected by consumers' nutritional concerns and awareness. Products with lower salt or sodium, lower cholesterol and lower calorie counts topped retailers' lists of new menu items, along with poultry and changes in the types of cooking oil used for frying.

"Light products are the fastest growing segments in the food industry, right now," said Don Knight, an executive with Kraft USA, confirming the obvious as he stood amid an array of products that included a new twist on an old favorite, Light Velveeta cheese!

PHOTO : ConAgra pioneered the low fat, "healthy eating" frozen food segment in the USA with its Healthy Choice line of dinners and entrees offering such recipes as Chicken A'L'Orange (left) and Yankee Pot Roast.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Kemp, Graham
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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