Weight management trends in transition

by Keith Nunes
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Weight management concepts take many forms. What was once a category defined by “diet” products has evolved to include marketers who shun the word diet and focus on health, fitness, portion control and providing on-trend, healthy alternatives to products often perceived as contributing to weight gain. But perhaps the most significant trend affecting the weight management cat-egory is personalization.

Overall, the sales of products targeting the weight management category have been on the decline, said Susan Porjes, an analyst with Packaged Facts and the author of the market research firm’s most recent report “Weight management trends in the U.S.”

“Partly it is the economy,” Ms. Porjes said. “But it is also because people are trying to manage their weight on their own. They are not buying special products, and they are not paying money to be a part of a program.

“There are also a lot of free weight management applications on-line. There are even programs where people can sign up and get paid to lose weight. Those types of things are changing the market and changing the way companies approach the market.”

Food and beverage companies have seen the changes taking place in the weight management category and adapted. Today, weight management takes many forms, including a focus on marketing better-for-you products, products that provide satisfaction through satiety, and a focus on adding protein and fiber to products.

“Companies are reformulating and developing products with health as a focus,” Ms. Porjes said. “They are trying to develop products that are more contemporary and may be used in recipes that are considered trendy.”

Ms. Porjes added that new ingredient options are also available and may be affecting how companies approach products that may fit in the weight management category.

“New sweeteners, such as stevia, have come out,” she said. “This is the second or third edition of this report I’ve worked on, and when I first started stevia was not approved. Now it is in quite a few products, especially beverages, and companies are looking for additional ways to replace sugar or enhance the satiety effect of their products.”

In its weight management report, Packaged Facts forecasts U.S. retail sales of weight management products and services, which include food and beverages, meal replacements and diet aids, and commercial weight management programs, will reach $38 billion in 2013 and $40.9 billion in 2016. The food and beverage category represents the largest share of sales, at almost 80%.

Yet over the past five years, according to Packaged Facts, sales of weight management food and beverages have been on a declining trend. Ms. Porjes pointed to the economy as one reason, but another may be how consumer perceptions related to weight management have evolved.

“You have to keep in mind that most people today will say they are watching their weight rather than dieting,” she said. “The word diet turns off men, which is half the market right there. That’s why we are seeing so many companies position their products as a contributor to fitness or being in shape.

“People are also fickle. Many consumers are perpetually watching their weight. They often will try something that works for a little while, but then loses its effectiveness. That approach often leads people to be looking around the corner for the next new thing.”

Breakfast and popcorn

The next area of focus for weight management may be the breakfast category, Ms. Porjes said.

“There has been a lot of focus on breakfast foods that have high protein,” she said. “This is not just targeted to people who want to lose weight, but it ties into the trend toward satisfaction and energy throughout the day.”

Products she mentions as examples include Special K Flatbread sandwiches from The Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., and Jimmy Dean Delights from Hillshire Brands, Chicago.

Another area of growth in weight management identified by Ms. Porjes is ready-to-eat popcorn.

“There seems to be a lot of activity in the category,” she said. “Part of the reason is the negative things people are hearing about microwavable popcorn. If it is ready made consumers don’t have to worry about chemicals possibly leaching out of the packaging.”

In early January, Popcorn, Indiana, Englewood, N.J., introduced a line of products called FIT. The products are available in four flavors: sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, onion Dijon, and Parmesan and herb. Each flavor in the FIT line is made with whole grains, contains 40 calories or less, and is 2 grams of fat per cup.

“FIT features a fresh and savory taste that puts the fun back into guilt-free snacking,” said Hitesh Hajarnavis, president and chief executive officer of Popcorn, Indiana.

ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, also has stepped into the ready-to-eat popcorn category with the introduction of Orville Redenbacher’s Pop Crunch. The product is air popped and is made with whole grain and is gluten-free, according to the company. The snack comes in four flavors: white and sharp cheddar mix; brown sugar cinnamon; cheddar and caramel mix; and Parmesan herb mix.

Andre Hawaux, president of the Consumer Foods division of ConAgra, said this past December that the Orville Redenbacher’s brand is “very strong” and has lots of opportunities for growth in the year ahead.

“What we’re seeing with consumers is a move from microwave — still a big, viable business — to this notion of ready-to-eat bag snacks, and we’re actually capturing that trend as well,” Mr. Hawaux said.

Ms. Porjes also cited the emerging water enhancer category as another area of growth within weight management. With some consumers evolving away from dieting to watching their weight, products that allow them to personalize food and beverage choices fit with their perception of weight management.

“MiO, Crystal Light, Dasani; there are so many of them out there,” she said. “I have gone to parties and seen people who don’t drink alcohol bring a water enhancer along to add flavor to their water. It’s a concept that seems to have struck a chord.”

The frozen category

Sales of frozen foods targeting weight management have declined in the past few years, but Ms. Porjes said the trend is less indicative of the category and more indicative of what is happening in frozen foods.

“Frozen meals are not doing well on the whole and there are lots of reasons for that,” she said. “The major one is people are turning more to fresh foods, and this is the case whether they are watching their weight or not. People just believe fresh foods are better for you.

“Another problem is the frozen food aisle is very sterile. The frozen food cases are in the middle of the store, there are rows of closed cases that don’t allow consumers to see the products until they are standing in front of the case.”

Ms. Porjes said some retailers are taking steps to make the frozen food aisle more consumer friendly. One strategy is to include flags or signs that highlight the different product categories. Another possible strategy is to offer samples.

“This is something the club stores do well,” she said. “This is not giving away a free meal. It is giving consumers a chance to see what is out there, and I think the club stores have shown it can be effective.”

Another area of weight management that is undergoing a transition is portion control and calorie counts, Ms. Porjes said.

“I think the bloom is off the rose with regard to 100-calorie packs,” she said.

But part of the reason may be many food and beverage companies have moved beyond the 100-calorie benchmark to products featuring fewer calories.

“You have the Fiber One 90 calorie bars,” Ms. Porjes said. “And now you have beverages with just 10 calories. I think we are going to see this trend continue as the food companies try to create products that fit with weight management but also fit into other trends.”

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