The US government's new dietary guidelines and a continuing focus on obesity portend a good year for food companies promoting healthy products.Bill Layden might be suspected of hyperbole when he enthusiastically says, "2005 will be the year of food and nutrition." After all, as director of the food and nutrition practice at Edelman, this agency EVP makes his living by talking about food. But this time, Layden isn't exaggerating. With the US government set to issue new dietary guidelines for Americans in January, it's likely food will be a major topic of media - and consumer - attention next year. Although obesity was a dominant topic this year, the 2005 guidelines will offer consumers concrete guidelines about what they need to eat to stem the obesity epidemic. At the same time, aging baby boomers will be looking for foods and nutrition recommendations that will help them live longer, healthier lives. Put the two concerns together, and 2005 shapes up as the year that food companies and restaurants that tout good-for-you, healthy products will come out on top in the scramble for their share of consumer mind and stomach. "I think the healthier option is something a lot of restaurants will look at," says Kevin Kane, PR manager with the Subway chain of sandwich shops. "The health issues are still going to be there, it's an ongoing concern." Subway has grown by talking about its low-fat and low-calorie offerings. But the chain is aware consumers want variety, so "we continually talk about choice," says Kane. Subway will start the new year promoting a new offering - toasted sandwiches. It's been installing new toaster-ovens in its stores and will launch a major marketing initiative to talk about toasting in January and February, working with its existing firm, Fleishman-Hillard, says Kane. Restaurants in general will talk about "options, choices, and sensible eating. That's where I see the industry gravitating," says Bob Goldin, EVP with Technomic, a Chicago restaurant research firm. Healthy eating messages will center on fresh products and more of an emphasis will be on grilling, as opposed to frying, says Goldin. And while salads have meant higher sales for McDonald's and others, "trying to get men to eat salads will be a challenge," says Goldin. When it comes to supermarket-bought foods, "consumers are asking questions; they're savvier, they've learned a lot," says Tina Ruggiero, director of Burson-Marsteller's US brand marketing practice in Chicago. Food companies will develop more functional foods and products whose ingredients have specific health benefits, says Ruggiero. Low-carb has stopped grabbing food headlines. Indeed, recent studies suggest that the number of Americans on low-carb diets is declining. Focus on fiber "Fiber is the next low-carb," predicts Ruggiero. Others agree, especially if new dietary guidelines stress that Americans need more fiber in their daily diets. One Burson client, Barilla Pasta, is planning to roll out a new pasta with added fiber. "A lot of companies are going to be launching products that are high in fiber," says Ruggiero. Stacey Bender, president of the Bender Hammerling Group in Upper Montclair, NJ, works with DreamFields Pasta, which emphasizes its natural semolina wheat content. Looking ahead to next year, Bender predicts, "Companies are going to look at what they have and position it to what is natural to that product." French's mustard, another company she represents, will be stressing the flavor-enhancing qualities of mustard, along with its low-calorie, natural qualities, working with celebrity fitness guru Nancy Kennedy. The firm is planning a media campaign with Kennedy talking about the benefits of natural foods. The mistake many food companies made in rushing out low-carb products this year, contends Bender, was in trying to take carbs out of naturally high-carb offerings. It's the same pitfall food companies fell into when trying to unveil low-fat products. Trying to re-engineer foods to fit into the latest diet fad often robs them of taste and consumers quickly reject them. "Foods should be within their own categories," says Bender. She sees organic foods gaining a growing share of consumer attention next year as part of the quest for healthier foods. Client Guiltless Gourmet, which makes organic and natural snack foods, is using the tagline "Read Our Label Out Loud" to convey that it uses only healthy ingredients. "2005 will be the year where the food revolution took hold and kicked off," says Jennifer English, founder of the Food & Wine Radio Network. Among the major trends toward healthier eating she expects next year is a shift from coffee to tea. Studies already done in Europe have shown the health benefits of tea. English expects those messages to reach American shores next year and thinks consumers will move from tea bought in bags to more individualized products. Green tea already has gained adherents as a health-benefit-filled product, and other varieties will follow, she says. On the seasoning front, "pepper is the new salt," says English. Studies have started to question whether there is a danger to consuming too much salt, and consumers will explore different pepper options in 2005, she says. Food processors also have a major credibility issue to address because of growing concerns over how healthy processed food products are, adds English. The ongoing obesity debate invariably returns to the healthiness of America's processed foods, she says. "You can't be overweight in this country and not realize you have to do something about it," notes English. That could produce a backlash against food processors. "Processed foods will continue to be scrutinized in a way where they don't become acceptable anymore," she says. As consumers demand more natural foods, major food companies will be forced to move into that space to survive. Indeed, many have bought organic food companies in recent years to be ready, should that segment become a major part of the food scene. But convincing consumers that big food companies have changed and moved away from unhealthy processed products, will present major PR challenges. "[Major food companies are] will have the same obstacles as big tobacco" when it comes to convincing consumers that they really care about their customers' health, believes English. Tim Willard, VP of communications with the National Food Processors Association, says major food companies still have a great deal of credibility with consumers. The wide range of products food processors offer, from no-salt to low-fat to low-carb, show that they've been responsive to consumer needs, and has helped build their credibility, he says. "Consumers aren't only being accepting of messages from industry, but they look for it," says Willard. He adds that nutrition labels have helped the industry's credibility by providing consumers with a fact-based way to evaluate the foods they buy. Edelman's Layden agrees. "I think consumers, for the most part, still value and trust the major brands," he says. Healthy expense While natural and organic foods will find increasing receptivity to their product messages, they still must deal with the issue of the higher cost for their products. Aging baby boomers, for example, want to eat healthier, but balk at having to pay more to do so, says Ruggiero. Layden sees dairy products and fiber benefiting from the new government dietary guidelines. But, he also notes that with all the talk about food and health next year, consumers will still be receptive to a different kind of food message. Fast-food chain Hardee's recently proved that point when it introduced a two-thirds-of-a- pound Thickburger, getting widespread media attention and increased sales. "I think you'll get the perfect year of dichotomy" in 2005, says Layden. "People do want to eat better, but at the same time they do want to eat foods they enjoy. Within the whole spectrum of foods, there will always be places of indulgence." So, food PR pros preparing their campaigns for 2005 need to be thinking about healthy choices, but they can't forget that food can be fun as well.