A fresh look

Food makers and marketers develop a healthy outlook.

Food makers and marketers develop a healthy outlook.

Before the baby boomer generation, diets were the domain of the pampered rich and famous, who could afford to take weeks off to enroll in sanitariums. Healthy cereals, for instance, were originally created by Will Keith Kellogg in the late 19th century as part of the holistic diet administered at his Battle Creek Sanitarium. Kellogg became the Dr. Atkins of his day when his enterprising brother packaged his newfangled corn flake for mass consumption. The essential marketing message at the time was improved health and convenience. That message remains the cornerstone of every food industry response to diet and nutrition trends and fads since.

Experts agree that the recent Atkins-inspired low-carb diet was a fad within a larger trend that began in the early 1990s after the US Department of Agriculture published the Food Pyramid and warned about the harmful effects of dietary fat. In fact, the twin trajectories of the low-fat and low-carb diet crazes are very similar. In both cases, consumer education about fat and carbs was based on good science, but the marketing hype suggested that cutting one or the other would provide a silver bullet to trim the waistline. As consumers bought the hype, the food industry responded by creating and marketing low-fat and low-carb foods to meet demand.

Registered dietician Aarti Arora, account supervisor with Marina Maher Communications, explains, "By the mid-'90s, the low-fat fad crashed because manufacturers came out with food that tasted terrible. Plus, people still gained weight because the fat-free foods that were palatable had an inflated sugar content." She says the same thing happened 10 years later when low-carb foods filled the shelves. The food tasted bad, and people gained weight because it was high in fat.

Searching for satisfaction

Since late 2004, an anti-Atkins backlash of sorts has taken hold. Starches and carbs have made a comeback. The new marketing strategy is to push a balanced lifestyle, putting the onus of diet control back on the customer.

McDonald's has been the market leader in the fresh and healthy trend among fast-food players. With its hefty marketing budgets, the Golden Arches has also crafted comprehensive PR programs to build credibility for the link between the concepts of "fast food" and "fresh."

On the heels of a failed obesity lawsuit, it relaunched its premium salads, touting them as "adult Happy Meals," with Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer, Bob Greene, as the spokesman for the line. Most recently, it rolled out the new Fruit & Walnut Salad and a new line of premium chicken sandwiches. McDonald's VP of communications Mike Donahue says the company has dedicated a large (though unspecified) budget to fitness advocacy.

The company's partnerships with Greene and Dr. Dean Ornish go far beyond a spokesperson contract. The two are advising on menu development, as well as community fitness programs, such as the "Passport to Play" program that McDonald's is rolling out to help fight childhood obesity. "These men have unassailable credibility when it comes to health and well-being," says Donahue. "They are not going to support programs they don't believe in."

Passport to Play, a national physical education program, launched in September in 31,000 schools, targeting 7 million children across the nation. It teaches children playground games and physical activities from around the world, giving them a chance to exercise while learning about the countries and cultures where the games originate.

The packaged-food industry is also redefining itself in the post-Atkins era. Rich Goldblatt, director of consumer marketing for M Booth & Associates, says Unilever brand Shedd's Country Crock leveraged its product heritage to pioneer a new chilled foods category with side dishes that would move from the refrigerator to the microwave to the table in five minutes. With Atkins in a free fall, Unilever and Shedd's suspected Americans would welcome a return to mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese. Moreover, these brands bought into the "fresh" message, being a chilled, perishable product.

M Booth created a wacky promotion to create instant product awareness and to generate retail acceptance in time for the holidays. It orchestrated a mock protest in Times Square, with actors dressed up as turkeys carrying placards demanding "Save our hides. Eat the sides!" They gathered signatures on a "Turkey Amnesty Day" petition, and for each signature gathered, one pound of the product was donated to America's Second Harvest.

The stunt resulted in 10,000 pounds of donated product, front-page coverage in major dailies in New York and Chicago, and 257 airings nationwide of the b-roll distribution. Additional PR efforts included hiring Everybody Loves Raymond star Doris Roberts to make the talk-show circuit and serve troops at Ft. Hood in Texas.

To follow up and emphasize the product's fresh message, M Booth shipped the product to editors around the country so that they could take it home and prepare it that day. "Usually editors are provided coupons to try perishable products," says Goldblatt. "We took the risk of shipping the actual product so they could experience the freshness and the easy preparation the same night they received the product."

Again the media responded favorably. M Booth's efforts were credited as helping Shedd's achieve an almost unheard of 100% product acceptance by grocers and $22 million in sales within the first seven months.

Like Shedd's, Sara Lee realized that mainstream America needed transitional products. As Americans returned to the bread aisle, Sara Lee saw that 85% of the products were made of enriched flour. "We knew that your tried-and-true mainstream white bread eater was not going to eat whole grain without retaining the taste, texture, and color of white bread," says Hall. In August, the company launched Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread, which was manufactured with an innovative blend of enriched and whole grains. The name is a mouthful, but early taste tests show promising results.

Kellogg's and General Mills faced a similar prospect. The new USDA health guidelines allow for more flexibility and customization of diet plans, but they strongly recommend "making half the grains whole." Like Sara Lee the cereal manufacturers responded by developing transitional products.

Kellogg's went as far as to develop entirely new product lines. For children, it launched a lightly sweetened whole grain cereal called Tiger Power, which uses blended flours. Another healthy brand, Smart, is aimed at both adults and children with PR programs directed to each segment. Like General Mills, Kellogg's is supporting these new products with media campaigns.

The new health harvest

While Americans are experiencing diet fatigue at the moment, food industry leaders agree that public acceptance of the fundamental precepts of fat and carb control remain steady. Porter Novelli nutrition expert Michael DeAngelis says people want to manage their diets and eat, too. "People will still look for a magic bullet for what works for them," says DeAngelis.

This new demand for customized and personalized diets has given rise to new messaging opportunities that savvy food industry players are beginning to position around. New buzz words like "glycemic index," "phytonutrients," and "satiety" are slowing being introduced into the diet and nutrition lexicon. Coming out of the fads, consumers are learning how to create balanced diets for their individual needs and how to eat for pleasure, as well as good health.

What America is eating

Below is a selection of current food trends that are a result of both changing consumer tastes and current medical opinion.

Phytonutrients

Counting fats and carbs is out. Today it's all about phytonutrients, or how much nutrition power is packed in the food you eat, thus better ingredients are the focus. Fast-food fruit salads with melon and citrus slices not only spoil faster, they are not very nutrient dense. McDonald's introduced the Fruit & Walnut Salad this year, offering freshness, high nutrition, and healthy fats in the nuts.

The diet du jour

Fad diets like Atkins focus on eliminating one "bad-for-you" food type. The currently popular Mediterranean diet is based on the ancient ways people ate and stayed healthy. Think the French paradox, where you can eat your creamy sauces and breads, and stay thin. The Mediterranean secret is an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and fish. And toast your health with a glass of wine.

Transitional foods

High-fiber products like Kellogg's All-Bran cereal and dense, whole-wheat breads are too rough and bland for many consumers. So packaged foods companies like Kellogg's and Sara Lee have introduced transitional products to make whole grains palatable to the masses and help them move to more healthy choices. The new Smart Start cereal offers a lightly sweetened whole grain flake, and Sara Lee's Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread is a healthier alternative to regular white bread.

Functional foods

"To pulp or not to pulp?" used to be the only question about orange juice. However, with the rise in adult lactose intolerance, people needed an alter- native to milk to get their calcium and other nutrients. Store shelves now offer O.J. fortified with calcium and even cholesterol-reducing additives.

The new Food Pyramid

Originally published in 1992, the USDA guidelines offered a one-size-fits-all approach to healthy nutrition. Fifteen years later, obesity and type-2 diabetes are epidemic, so the chart was redesigned to allow some customization and a balance between vegetables and grains. The key addition was a figure climbing stairs to emphasize the link between diet and exercise.

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