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Shoppers say 'yes' to less.

Americans are waging a new campaign for freedom in the supermarket. They want liberation from the high levels of sugar, sodium, caffeine, fat and cholesterol in the foods they eat.

This new emphasis on "low" and "lite" has been building for several years. In the beginning, some saw it as "only a fad." But interest is far from fading.

In fact, it seems to be at an all time high. And with the American Cancer Society's recent endorsement of a low-fat, high-fiber, anti-cancer diet, the number of consumers making health-influenced buying decisions is expected to increase even more. The society is urging consumers to eat less fat, alcohol and fewer smoked foods, and to consume more vitamins, fiber and certain vegetables, such as cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

But although more consumers are saying "no" to certain food ingredients, that doesn't mean they want to give up all of the tastes they enjoy. "People are searching for trade-offs," says Susan Barlow, director of First National's Consumer Center. They don't want to feel they have to starve themselves or give up everything they love to maintain a healthy diet."

For many shoppers, that means selecting ginger snaps instead of cream-filled sandwich cookies, tuna packed in water instead of oil, chicken rather than beef, and frozen or fresh vegetables instead of canned. It means switching to a decaffeinated soft drink, choosing no-salt tomato products, "lite" canned fruit, or cereals for children that promise half the sugar content.

Commercials for Sweet 'N Low are a prime example of the trade-off concept. Actress Cathy Lee Crosby looks longingly at a luscious layer cake, sighs, and laments how desserts like that can be the ruination of a good figure. But, she says, thanks to Sweet N' Low, she can sometimes have the great desserts she loves. She then helps herself to a slice of cake.

Trade-offs are part of the new approach to healthy eating, and the phenomenon is pervading the entire supermarket, not just the "diet" department. Increasing numbers of low-sugar, low-fat, low-sodium, no-caffeine products are moving in right next to the standard selections. And it's not just affecting the grocery shelves, but the dairy, meat, frozens and produce departments, as well.

The number of "no," "low," and "lite" products has grown tremendously in the past year. Dancer Fitzgerald Sample's New Product News reports significant gains (more than 15%) in new product growth in the low-calorie, dietetic and low-sodium categories.

In Progressive Grocer's Annual Report, 40% of the retailers surveyed listed these types of products as their most successful new items last year. Their list includes NutraSweet products, low-calorie and caffeine-free carbonated beverages, sugar/salt substitutes and salt-free items. On the Thin Side

The new product growth in the low-calorie category shows that thinking thin is still "in." New product News reports that 91 new low-calorie foods were introduced in 1983 compared to 60 in 1982 and 42 in 1981. Aspartame, G.D. Searles' low-calorie sweetener, is the primary reason for the growth surge in this category. Sales of products with NutraSweet are booming.

"Consumers simply love the stuff," says Mona Doyle, president of The Consumer Network. "We've gotten excellent feedback on the new products with NutraSweet." Doyle does report that some consumers say they are still leary about the product because they feel it's too new.

Recently, fuel was added to this fire, when an Arizona study claimed aspartame in soft drinks can break down into toxic levels of methyl alcohol at high temperatures. The FDA responded with reassurance, however, saying it had investigated that process and found aspartame safe.

The addition of NutraSweet to low-calorie soft drinks greatly expanded the beverage category this year, as did the influx of caffeine-free colas. The introduction of caffeine-free colas was prompted by seven-Up's advertising campaign promoting its lack of caffeine.

Whether caffeine is really a health hazard has yet to be definitively proven, but over 10,000 articles and reports have linked it to a wide range of health problems, including physical addition, birth defects, heart disease and cancer. And a growing number of consumers are responding to this scare by switching to no-caffeine soft drinks, decaffinated coffee and herbal teas.

Concern over sodium was the most pressing health issue of 1983, however. "Our customers," says Mickey Feldberg, consumer advisor for shopwell, "especially in our Food Emporium stores, are particularly aware of diet and nutrition. And many of them, especially if they are older people, are very sensitive to reducing sodium whether or not they have been told to by a doctor. So they look to it not only in the packaged and canned items, but in the deli items, as well." The Salt Shakers

Doyle agrees. "There is a tremendous breadth of people saying they are trying less salt," she says, "and the numbers are still getting larger. We've worked with clients who claim the low-sodium interest peaked a year ago, but in our consumer panel surveys, we see the interest increasing."

As consumers cut back on salt and sugar in their diets, it's affecting taste perceptions of many of the foods they eat. "For example," says Doyle, "more and more consumers are complaining that the packaged food they buy is tasting saltier and saltier. The manufacturer's tried and true products are not keeping up with the salt reduction taking place at the consumer's table. From people of all ages, we're hearing. 'We gave up the salt shaker and now everything tastes too salty.' That's pretty pervasive.

"We're hearing the same thing about sugar. There is a rising complaint on the part of consumers that sweets are too sweet. They especially complain about prepared desserts. A growing number of people have learned to eat somewhat lighter foods and it simply doesn't take as much sugar to satisfy their sweet tooth."

Taste is an important criterion in the world of the "low" and the "lite." This is particularly true regarding reduced-sodium products. In fact, some industry executives believe that the average consumer--who is not on a doctor's diet--will never give up good taste and that's a given with many of the reduced- and low-sodium products on the market today. "Taste is a very sharp concern," agrees Doyle. "There's a great willingness on behalf of the consumer to spend for flavor."

But there's also a wide misunderstanding among consumers as to why products advertising "less" cost more. "Our consumer panelists," says Doyle, "think items packed without sugar should cost less than items packed with sugar and are constantly irritated by light fruits and diet sodas that cost more than sugar-based equivalents."

Although price comparisons are more obvious to consumers when these types of items are sold next to their regular equivalents, placing them alongside regular ones appears to be a more successful strategy than establishing a special section.

Among shoppers who reported that their store mixes sodium-modified products with regular ones, 73% had at least considered purchasing some of them, versus only 62% of those who reported that their store had a special section. Similarly, 64% versus 52% had actually bought a special product at least once and 18% versus 14% considered themselves regular purchasers of sodium-modified products. The Right Mix

"A shopper entering a store with no intention of buying a sodium-modified product," says James T. Heimbach, director of consumer studies at the Food and Drug Administration, "is more likely to be exposed to such a product if it is with the regular foods rather than off in a special section. When the shopper returns to the store after buying the product once or twice, but still with no real commitment to sodium-modified products, she or he may be more likely once again to find and purchase the product if it is not off in a special section. Once real commitment has developed, however, the existence of a special section facilities the ease of locating and re-purchasing the product and increase exposure to other such products. The ideal would probably be for a store to use both strategies."

Many supermarkets are following this advice with great success. First National Supermarkets, Maple Heights, Ohio, has developed a Nutri-Scan program that integrates special diet products with its regular selections in it 57 stores.

The nutritional information in the system is based on a computerized data bank containing more than 2,500 products. Information in the data bank comes from hundreds of manufacturers and includes all representative high-volume foods sold in First National's supermarket. It includes fresh meat, delicatessan foods, produce, canned and frozen foods, large-volume snack foods, such as beer, cookies and soft drinks and frozen and prepared foods such as pizza. And it is specific for each brand. Easy to Understand

Shelf tags use a simple visual system for easy consumer identification. "They were designed to capture shopper attention within 30 seconds, the time within which most buying decisions are made." explains Barlow.

Three squares are designated for each product: a calorie square, a fat square and a sodium square. The color or lack of color in the square shows which foods are low, moderate or high in calories, fat or sodium. For example, empty squares represent "minimum," half-filled squares represent "moderate," and fully colored squares mean "high," all on a per serving basis.

"Our consumer research," says Barlow, "has told us that people do not understand milligrams and they do not understand grams of fat. Numbers stop people dead in their tracks. They just want a simple reference guide of what's high, what's low and what's moderate. This system provides that in a visual way."

Numerical information is provided along with the colored squares in a Nutri-Scan booklet available to shoppers at check-out for 99 cents. Consumers can use the booklet for easy reference at home and to plan their shopping lists.

"The demand for the program has been overwhelming," says Barlow. "We've sold thousands and thousands of Nutri-Scan books, not just to our own customers, but to doctors, nutritionists, dieticians and groups across the country."

This program and other similar approaches are successful because they feed on the consumer's desire to "trade-off." Today's shoppers want options.

"The complexity of the problem for the average shopper is choosing from among 15,000 foods for each and every meal," said Carol Williams, nutrition administrator for the Kroger Co., at a recent nutrition conference. "Customers have suddenly realized that just because it tastes good and is wholesome doesn't mean that it is good for their health. They want information about the foods they eat.

"However, people eat food--not nutrition. Furthermore, people eat some foods because they are good for them and some foods they are not going to eat no matter what you tell them."

But providing point-of-sale information and identifying the special food options available can make dieting a delight rather than a dilemma for both food shoppers and retailers alike.
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Title Annotation:supermarkets emphasize on consumers preference
Author:Johnson, Mary
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:May 1, 1984
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