Of the 10 top-selling new foods or beverages in 2005, six are positioned for weight-loss, in one form or another. Furthermore, if a sports drink can be considered a hallmark of a weight-conscious consumer, that adds another entry this year with such a positioning. Consumer interest in nutrition and weight-management items should be of no shock, considering the levels of obesity and overweight in the country.

As the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found in analyzing data culled from its Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, obesity rates have spread throughout the country. “In 1991,” the CDC notes, “four states had obesity prevalence rates of 15% to 19%, and no states had rates at or above 20%. In 2004, seven states had obesity prevalence rates of 15% to 19%; 33 states had rates of 20% to 24%; and nine states had rates more than 25% (no data for one state).” According to results from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), an estimated 66% of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese. Making matters even worse, a study published in Britain's Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine by Harvard School of Public Health specialists finds these numbers may be significantly lower than reality. Conventional estimates in 2002 pegged 21.9% of men and 21.2% of women as clinically obese; however, the study published in Britain found 28.7% of adult American men and 34.5% of American women actually fell under that banner. Why was there a discrepancy? The study put the blame on low-cost data collection and human nature (that is, the tendency to underestimate one's weight).

Nevertheless, the NHANES study does indicate some positive news on the obesity front. While overweight levels increased among girls and boys, as did obesity levels in men, (by 3% to 4% among each group) between 1999 and 2004, women actually registered a slight decline in obesity (dropping from 33.4% in 1999 to 33.2% in 2004).

What does this bode for new products hitting the market? “Better-for-you” products (which include those targeting dieters, as well as items with a healthful positioning) have fared well in recent years, accounting for significant portions of Information Resources Inc.'s (IRI) New Product Pacesetters for the past several years; they are poised to continue that streak through next year at least (see sidebar “Conveniently Absent”).

The South Beach line from Kraft notwithstanding, the introduction of foods with reduced carbohydrate content has all but disappeared. IRI's 2005 Pacesetters report, which includes the top new brands launched between February 2004 and January 2005, listed several introductions touting fewer carbohydrates, yet early projections for 2006 indicate consumer interest in such products has diminished or, at the very least, the abundance of such products on shelves has lessened the impact of any new such products. Instead, manufacturers and consumers are taking a portion-controlled approach to snacks and other food items, effectively merging two trends: higher nutritional standards and convenience. An example of this could be seen across a number of segments, but the earliest to make a notable impression in terms of sales were the 100 Calorie Packs from Nabisco, which provided portion and calorie control by means of single-serve packages filled with reduced-fat versions of a variety of the Kraft company's cookie and cracker brands, such as Oreo and Cheese Nips.

The Nabisco offerings managed $107 million in year-one sales, according to IRI, as consumers embraced portion-controlled “crisps” versions of Chips Ahoy!, Wheat Thins and Mixed Berry Fruit Snacks. Each 100-calorie package also had a fairly low fat content (of between 0g to 3g) and, according to the company, met “the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's per-serving standard for 0g trans fat.” As Joy Bauer, dietitian and author of The 90/10 Weight-Loss Plan, notes, such products balance notions of health with convenience and ease to the consumer. “Keeping track of calories can be very challenging,” she explains, “especially for busy people who could use a little help managing what they eat. Pre-portioned snacks…help (consumers) understand and track how many calories (they) are consuming in each snack occasion, while still enjoying the great tasting favorites from brands (they) know and trust.”

Including those recognized brands and snacks as part of a diet plan will make it simpler for the consumer to stick with that weight-loss effort and, more importantly, she finds, make it easier to continue long-term healthful eating patterns. This is a lesson consumers seem to be adapting, helped in no small part by the number of portion-controlled products across a range of segments throughout the grocery store. General Mills added a 100-calorie version of its Pop-Secret popcorn; Pepperidge Farm has 100-calorie pouches of Goldfish; Yoplait debuted a 100-calorie Light Thick and Creamy Yogurt. With respect to beverages, Coca-Cola launched small, 8oz, 100-calorie cans of Coca-Cola, Cherry Coke and Sprite. According to a Coca-Cola spokesperson, the retail prices for the 8oz versions are about the same as the 12oz cans.

While none of these seem poised to make the top 10 bestseller list next year, at least at present, they are answering a demand from consumers. Datamonitor's ProductScan Online shows 29 pre-packaged 100-calorie products introduced over the past three years, with 18 alone in the past year. Frito-Lay, for instance, has joined the fray with its new 100 Calorie Mini Bites line, with 100-calorie servings of Baked! Cheetos, Doritos Nacho Cheese, Cheetos Asteroids and Doritos Cool Ranch snacks.

However, the Mini Bites products are not Frito-Lay's only effort on the sensible snacking front. In fact, one of the company's better-for-you snacks cracked the top 10 for 2005, although it easily could be argued that this product was not exactly new. In fact, this was more or less a repackaging and rebranding of a somewhat controversial line. Frito-Lay's Light snacks were cooked in olestra, as were the discontinued Frito-Lay Wow! products. The “new” range included weight-conscious versions of Lay's and Ruffles potato chips, which promised 0g of fat per serving, as well as light varieties of Doritos and Tostitos, with 1g of fat per serving. While the line snagged $112 million in year-one sales to nab the fourth spot on IRI's Pacesetters list, the controversy surrounding Wow! was not left behind. Olestra, a fat substitute, has been claimed to cause diarrhea, stomach cramps and other symptoms in a lawsuit filed by a Massachusetts woman, who says she would not have purchased the products had she known they contained the ingredient. Aided by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), she asked the court to require labels on the products warning about the potential for adverse reactions. The lawsuit has done little to deter consumers away from Frito-Lay's health-aware products; according to the company, sales of healthier-focused snacks (including those with the “Smart Spot” label), gained 20% during the first quarter of 2006. The Smart Spot symbol appears on more than 100 of the company's foods and beverages that it claims contribute to healthier lifestyles.

Attempting to merge nutrition and weight-loss, Unilever formulated the Slim-Fast Optima range of beverages and snacks with a balance of lean proteins, complex carbohydrates and significantly less sugar than the regular Slim-Fast products (up to 50% less, in fact). The 15-sku line (a mix of beverages and foods) garnered $166 million in year-one sales, to secure the top spot among new product introductions during the time under review.

The manufacturer describes the Slim-Fast Optima plan as “more than just a 'shake, shake, meal.'” While not abandoning the shakes that first gained the brand its notoriety, Optima augmented those with meal-replacement options—meal bars, whole-grain muffin bars and snack bars. The range later expanded to include fruit smoothies, boasting real fruit flavors, high protein levels and a balance of vital nutrients.

Speaking of nutrients, the ready-to-drink shakes and meal bars are fortified with 24 vitamins and minerals, as were the line's powdered shakes. The Slim-Fast Optima Diet, the company notes, was designed around Calorie Science, which seeks to provide a “precise balance of protein, heart-healthy fats and complex carbohydrates.”

Welcome to the Party

While calorie content long has been a key determinant for many consumers attempting to lose weight, those priorities shifted to carbohydrate levels in recent years. Low-carb introductions have slowed of late, but a pair did land among this year's top-selling products. The CarbWell line of products from Kraft offered cookies, energy bars, cereal, cereal bars, steak and barbecue sauces, and salad dressings (all with 9g or less of carbohydrates). As Jennifer Beck, director of health and wellness for Kraft Foods, noted at CarbWell's launch, “Through our research, Kraft has discovered that many people…are not looking to completely cut out their favorite foods—or familiar tastes—from their diets. Consumers have also told us they simply want to enjoy the same great-tasting favorite foods they've eaten for years, in ways that meet today's diet and lifestyle demands, without having to pay a premium price.”

A low-carb offering in the beverage aisle was not quite the success many expected it to be. Nevertheless, Coca-Cola C2 still managed $77 million in first-year sales and outlasted its chief competition, Pepsi Edge, which was dropped before the end of last year. C2 contained half the calories, sugar and carbohydrates of regular colas, while also being low in sodium. The product included aspartame, acesulfame potassium and sucralose, in addition to the high fructose corn syrup “typically found in cola beverages distributed in America,” notes the company. Its calorie content is greater than that of Diet Coke but claims to taste more like regular Coke. Despite the relative success, C2 is being phased out this year.

Low-carb also could be found among adult beverages, as Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser Select cut the carbs, kept the alcoholic content (4.3% alcohol by volume) and managed $123 million in year-one sales, the second-best debut this year. Anheuser-Busch notes the product was “developed using two-row and roasted specialty malts for a rich color. A blend of aromatic domestic and imported hops provides balance and flavor.” The company further noted that the product spent nearly twice as long in the brew house as regular beers, yet it had only 3.1g of carbohydrates and 99 calories per 12oz serving.

Truth be told, the low-carb fad largely has dissipated, at least in terms of new product introductions; and if it has not faded away entirely, it certainly is evolving, notes Valerie Skala Walker, new products expert with IRI. “In 2003-2004, the heat was on 'white food'—processed flour and sugar, 'bad' carbs,” she explains. “In 2004-2006, we see more focus on 'nutrient density'—getting more nutrition per calorie and cutting back empty calories. The low-carb fad has passed, but Kraft's South Beach Diet line seems to be doing very well with a balanced approach involving the 'right' carbs, the 'right' fats and lean proteins.”

There are indications that low-carb dieting is morphing into what could best be described as a “good-carb” approach. As Skala Walker opines, “Will American consumers latch onto the concept of low-glycemic index (GI) foods, or maybe something even more familiar like 'fiber'? Some industry observers think that concept is too technical to have broad appeal here, but perhaps the term 'slowly absorbed carbs' will fly.”

Slow and Easy

As Skala Walker explains, “The difference between a trend and a fad is how long it lasts. We're talking about the same trends this year as last year, but what is different is how those trends are evolving and playing out in the marketplace. For example, consumers keep raising the bar on the definition of convenience, and manufacturers keep responding.”

As proof of her point, a pair of meal solutions finished near the top of the list this year. Under the Banquet banner, ConAgra debuted Crock Pot Classics, which brought convenience to slow cooking. The product required roughly five minutes of preparation in the morning (since the vegetables and meats came pre-chopped, this basically meant assembling the products and dispensing them into a crock pot) to begin the cooking; then it was ready to eat in the evening. Considering NFO World Group data show more than 80% of Americans own a slow cooker and 20% of households use their crock pots at least weekly, the products met an untapped and perhaps unrealized need. Each of the six varieties (beef stew, chicken and dumplings, chicken with redskin potatoes and vegetables, creamy chicken pasta, herb chicken and rice, and stroganoff with beef and noodles) contained all the ingredients needed for a slow-cooked meal, including meat, vegetables, potatoes and seasoned sauce. As John Hanson, vice president of marketing with Banquet, explains, the convenience of the product is only part of its success: “The end of the day turns into a hectic family rush hour. Families—moms, especially—experience the stress of getting dinner on the table and managing different schedules. (This product) can provide more family time, because they are ready to eat when families are.” Undoubtedly helping to some extent was ConAgra's licensing of the Crock-Pot name and joint promotion and couponing with the Holmes Group, the owner of the Crock-Pot trademark.

A similar product had moderate success this year, as General Mills' Slow Cooker Helper under the Betty Crocker label registered $29 million in sales. Marie Callender's launched a similar line of meals late in 2005.

Another success in meal solutions available in the frozen case merged convenience and gourmet positioning with smaller portions. The Dinner for Two line came from Unilever under its Bertolli line. These chef-inspired dinners promised to go from the freezer to the skillet to the table in 10 minutes. Curiously, microwaving the meals actually required more time (11 to 12 minutes) than stovetop preparation, “due to the uneven cooking that can occur in many microwave ovens,” explains the company. The recipes were developed by Italian chefs, and the products are an example of the flexible-serving trend noted of late, Skala Walker finds, which has targeted empty-nest Baby Boomers, singles and couples.

Indeed, many of the most successful products released in recent years have hardly focused on only one trend; they have, in fact, catered to at least two of the most time-honored consumer demands: be it a portion-controlled snack for on-the-go consumption, time-saving meal solutions with more-upscale and gourmet flavors, or healthful convenience, consumers clearly are expecting more from manufacturers.

Website Resources:

www.smartspot.com/1_smart_spot/1-1_prod_criteria.php — Criteria for PepsiCo's Smart Spot label
http://us.infores.com/ — Information Resources Inc.
www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/obesity/ — CDC's Overweight and Obesity site

Sidebar: Conveniently Absent

Looking ahead to the list of early candidates for top-sellers for 2006, again no one trend emerges as a primary influence, though one is conspicuously missing.

The Carb Well line from Kraft has morphed into the company's South Beach products, which are positioned as the strongest-selling new products so far. Indeed, if forced to choose one trend as the greatest influence on new product introductions this year, it would again have to be health and weight-loss. In addition to Kraft's South Beach line, a pair of new beverages with this positioning have performed well—Coke Zero and Diet Coke with Splenda. So has an ice cream, Dreyer's Slow-churned Light Ice Cream, which has more than 30 flavors all promising half the fat and a third fewer calories than Dreyer's regular versions. Incorporating the same light ingredients as the current Dreyer's/Edy's Grand Light, the company says a “slow-churned” method—the result of a five-year, $100 million R&D investment—of making the ice cream helps to deliver the taste and texture of full-fat ice cream.

However, consumers have shown a perfect willingness to embrace full-fat ice cream treats, as exemplified in the success of another Dreyer's product—Dreyer's Dibs. The interesting selling point for Dibs, however, is that the product serves to make ice cream somewhat convenient: these chocolate-coated ice cream bites do not require the time to spoon the ice cream into a bowl. Somewhat surprisingly, this and, arguably, Kraft's South Beach line are the only convenience-oriented items projected among the top 10 sellers for 2006. What does IRI forecast as 2006's bestsellers (specifically, products launched after February of 2005 and, therefore, not eligible to be included among IRI's 2005 list)?

* Kraft South Beach Line
* Dreyer's Slow-churned Light Ice Cream
* Coke Zero
* Pepsi with Lime
* Diet Coke with Splenda
* Coke with Lime
* Sara Lee Soft & Smooth
* Dreyer's Dibs
* Chips Ahoy Snack 'n Seal
* Nestle Pure Life still water