Fat Being Put Back In Food As Consumers Demand Taste
By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Fat is back, and food companies are responding -- turning up the taste as well as the fat grams -- in pursuit of consumers' increasingly demanding palates.
"Consumers got burned out on the first generation of fat-free foods," said Tom Vierhile, general manager of Marketing Intelligence Service, a new-product tracking service based in Naples, N.Y. "People have come to an understanding that they'd rather consume small amounts of the good stuff rather than avoid it altogether and consume foods that don't taste good."
Vierhile notes a "huge contraction" in introductions of products making nonfat and reduced-fat claims. "These products are nonexistent," he said in a recent interview.
In 1995, some 21 percent of all new products made such claims, he said.
Replacing them are decadent introductions like Newman's Own All Natural Ice Cream, introduced this summer in varieties such as Pistol Packin' Praline Pecan, whose package exclaims, "Praise the Lord and pass the damnutrition."
Popcorn makers this year slid back to their buttery beginnings with new varieties such as Jolly Time's Blast O Butter and Act II's 2000 Extreme Butter, boasting 200 percent more butter than any leading brand. "The popcorn guys are saying, 'Who cares about fat. Bring on the butter. Make it swim,"' Vierhile said.
Despite the fat-free backlash, experts said consumers haven't given up on wellness. They're just demanding food that tastes good. "It has to taste great. If it doesn't, consumers will reject it," said Stephanie Williams, who has tracked consumers' tastes for 29 years as director of food kitchens at Philip Morris Cos.' Kraft Foods Inc.
Williams said consumers have become more proactive about what they eat. "Consumers have been hearing about what to avoid for years, and frankly, they're tired of it and are taking matters into their own hands," she said.
Kraft this month will try to quell consumers' increasing impatience with good-for-you foods that taste bad. The company is rolling out Light Done Right, an eight-flavor line of reduced-fat salad dressings that promises all of the taste, but 50 percent less fat and 33 percent fewer calories than regular salad dressings.
"Consumers are not willing to compromise on taste when they're eating reduced-fat products," said Jennifer Beck, associate brand manager at Kraft. She said the new reduced-fat line contains no fillers. "We just took out oil and improved the flavor profile," she said.
Kraft will support the salad dressings through national newspaper inserts and in-store coupons early next month. A national TV campaign from Leo Burnett Co. in Chicago, will follow in January. Beck declined to disclose the budget, but said it will comprise "an important part of our advertising in 1999."
Nabisco Biscuit Co., whose SnackWell's Devil's Food Cookie Cakes once caused supermarket stampedes, also is responding to consumers' increased taste demands. The company reformulated its product line this summer, increasing the fat content in some varieties by as much as 50 percent and adding two new indulgent flavors -- Mint Cream and Caramel Delights -- this month.
When Nabisco first introduced SnackWell's in 1992, consumers trailed delivery trucks in search of the reduced-fat treats, spawning an advertising campaign from Foote, Cone & Belding, New York, featuring a fictitious SnackWell's "Cookie Man" hounded by Devil's Food devotees.
Demand for SnackWell's has dropped precipitously since then. According to Information Resources Inc. of Chicago, supermarket sales of SnackWell's cookies dropped 23.6 percent to $146.8 million for the 52 weeks ended May 24, compared with a 1.1 percent increase in the overall market during the same period.
"Consumers have raised the bar on the taste profile," said Ann Smith, a SnackWell's spokeswoman. "It needs to taste great." Smith said consumers who once demanded fat-free products have evolved in the six years since SnackWell's' introduction. "Consumers have not walked away from wellness, but they are willing to accept a half gram or gram of fat if you're going to dramatically improve taste."
Sara Lee Bakery of Chicago is betting $20 million that consumers will accept a bit more than that. The company is undertaking its biggest new-product push in 10 years in the hopes that consumers want to indulge in a bite of chocolate-drenched cheesecake.
"Five years ago, the trend was total fat avoidance," said Laura Shapira, senior marketing manager responsible for Sara Lee's cheesecake business. "The pendulum has shifted. Consumers want to indulge themselves in smart ways. When they want a treat, they really want a treat. They just don't want to overdo it."
To satisfy those cravings, Sara Lee in May launched Cheesecake Bites and Cheesecake Singles in Chicago and San Francisco. With 6 grams of fat and 100 calories, Cheesecake Bites allow consumers to get a taste of indulgence without going overboard, Shapira said. The individually wrapped bites and single slices of cheesecake can be eaten directly from the freezer.
"Until now, you couldn't do that with cheesecake," she said.