A WEIGHTY CONTEST

Supermarkets may be stocking more products made with reduced fat or fat substitutes, in response to consumer health concerns, but Americans continue to exhibit multiple-personality syndrome when it comes to choosing the foods that make up their diet.Many people feel that counting fat grams is still important, and they continue to eat products identified on the label as fat-free, according to NPD Group,

Supermarkets may be stocking more products made with reduced fat or fat substitutes, in response to consumer health concerns, but Americans continue to exhibit multiple-personality syndrome when it comes to choosing the foods that make up their diet.

Many people feel that counting fat grams is still important, and they continue to eat products identified on the label as fat-free, according to NPD Group, Rosemont, Ill.

Still, when SN asked retailers how fat-free Wow! chips were doing, many echoed comments made by Bernie Rogan, spokesman for Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass. He said sales "bubbled up and died back down.

"The product continues to be sold, but it's not going out the door as quickly as it did. People apparently don't have enough concern or loyalty to it," said Rogan.

Two recent studies seem to confirm the notion that Americans are less concerned about fat than they used to be. According to the most recent report on food trends issued by the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, titled "Trends in the United States: Consumer Attitudes & the Supermarket, 1999," less than half (49%) of consumers were very concerned about the nutritional content of their food. This figure has been steadily decreasing, year by year. The percentage was as high as 64% in 1992 and 62% in 1994. Similarly, 59% of shoppers who were very or somewhat concerned with what they ate put fat at the top of their concern list in 1994, while only 50% did so in 1999.

Meanwhile, this year's HealthFocus survey, "National Study of Public Attitudes and Actions Toward Healthy Eating and Shopping," showed that 46% are unwilling to compromise taste for health's sake, compared with 33% of unwilling gourmands in 1990.

At the same time, 54% of respondents said they believed that food and nutrition could be used to reduce the use of drugs and other medical therapy, up 14 percentage points from the 1996 survey results, according to Linda Gilbert, president of Des Moines, Iowa-based HealthFocus. This statistic reflects the public's increased interest in nutraceuticals, or functional foods, but may also indicate that we want our cake -- and it had better be nutritious and taste good too.

Another interesting statistic from the HealthFocus survey was that 46% of respondents said they believed that it was possible to be overweight and physically fit and attractive at the same time.

NPD also compiles data on the way America eats. From 1992 to 1998, the percentage of the population that ate a fat-free product at least once in the preceding two-week period consistently went up, from 35% to 51%, according to Harry Balzer, a vice president of NPD. At the same time, though, the percentage of primary meal preparers who agree that "a person should be very cautious in serving foods with fat" peaked at 51% in 1994 and slipped to 41% last year. But Balzer claims that this change in attitude reflects that people are actually changing their eating habits, so they don't need to be as strict in the way they think about diet.

"At least half the population is taking care of [the fat problem]. One of the best new product introductions in the last year is a fat-free potato chip," Balzer said in a recent interview with SN.

Mark Endres, direct-store-delivery buyer for Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., told SN that people will accept fat-free products more easily in some categories than in others. Acceptance is based on the degree of taste difference the consumer can discern.

"The Wow! line is pretty good, and there is the same trend in soft drinks," Endres said. "There's not a lot of difference in taste between a diet drink and a regular drink, but when you get to Entenmann's [baked goods] there's a huge difference.

"People want that taste. They are more concerned over taste than fat. We have actually cut back considerably on the low-fat Entenmann's line. The fat-free have been on a massive decline. Now the full-fat category in baked goods is starting to build back up again," Endres said.

Ann Smith, a spokeswoman for Nabisco, East Hanover, N.J., agreed that consumers will not sacrifice too much taste in the quest for less fat. Nabisco overhauled its SnackWell's line last July, "to plus up the texture and flavor of the product and still keep it reduced fat," Smith said. This meant adding back 1.5 grams of fat to the previously fat-free line. "Wellness has evolved from where it was in 1992," Smith said. "Then the mantra was 'Get the fat out!' As time goes on, the consumer has become willing to accept some fat for the sake of better taste."

Nabisco has also tested fat-free formulations of Wheat Thins and Ritz crackers, but has not made a decision about rolling them out. Meanwhile, full-fat and reduced-fat versions of Wheat Thins and Ritz are doing "exceptionally well," said Smith.

Since consumer interest in fat-free foods remains somewhat strong, at least some of the time, more manufacturers are jumping on the olestra bandwagon. Olestra, a synthetic fat created by Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, is too large a molecule to assimilate, so it passes through the human body.

Two Pennsylvania-based potato-chip makers, Herr Foods and Utz, recently launched tests of fat-free chips made with Olean, the brand name for olestra. Herr's new potato chip is called Rave. Utz's chip, called Yes!, was in test market until the end of May. The company rolled out the potato chip this month in its markets in 10 mid-Atlantic states, said Rick King, president of Utz Quality Foods, Hanover.

Olean is also used in Wow! chips, which were rolled out in 1998 by Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas. Since Frito-Lay had an agreement with Procter & Gamble for the exclusive use of Olean for a year period, other chip makers had to wait to buy enough of the new "fat" so that they could bring their own products to market.

Wow! was ranked the No. 1 new product by Information Resources Inc., Chicago, in 1998, when it garnered $347 million in sales. The Olean potato-chip segment represents about 10% of the potato-chip category, according to a statement from Herr Foods, Nottingham, Pa.

The Wow! line currently includes Doritos, Tostitos tortilla chips, Ruffles and the Lay's Sour Cream & Chive potato chip, all made with Olean. Although the Wow! line appears to have hurt sales of the baked chips, Frito-Lay continues to introduce new baked chip items.

Endres of Save Mart said the salty-snack category has been up for the last two years, even prior to the Wow! launch. "Wow! actually represents 5.5% of our total mix of products, and it really hasn't changed much since the beginning," Endres said. Sales of Wow! chips have leveled off since the first of the year, he added, even though, in northern California, Save Mart is No. 2 in sales of Wow! products.

This is not really good news for Frito-Lay, which admits it has further to go.

"Wow! continues to do well in 1999," said Lynn Markley, spokeswoman for Frito-Lay. "The key to growing the brand is further penetration and getting it into people's hands," she said. She said the chips are doing best in the South and Southwest, and in particular pockets such as the Baltimore-Washington area.

When it first came out, reports that Olean created digestive upsets and depleted the body of certain vitamins and minerals deterred some consumers. But now "the scare of Olean is over," said Sue Bright, public relations representative of Herr Foods.

The Rave package design prominently displays the red, white and blue Olean logo in the lower right-hand corner, just under a big red banner proclaiming it has "Half the Calories of Regular Potato Chips." The packaging also carries a warning label that has been mandated by the Food and Drug Administration for all olestra-based products, which says that the chips can cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Rave is being tested in all markets that currently carry Herr's, said Bright.

Last year, about the time that Frito-Lay rolled out its first Wow! chip, SN reported that Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., launched its own low-fat salty snack, called What a Chip! The private-label potato chips are not baked, nor do they contain a fat substitute. Rather, they are made with a special process that removes much of the oil, and thus the fat, after cooking.

Company officials declined to comment further about the process, and would not tell SN the name of the company that developed the technology. Wegmans would not comment for this story either.

As reported in SN last year, the rollout of potato chips made with Olean was well-received by retailers, who hoped that the fat alternative would revitalize the snack category.

Last year Olean was hailed by some as the biggest product innovation since NutraSweet artificial sweetener. Some of the largest supermarket chains, including Kroger Co., Safeway, Ralphs Grocery Co. and Jewel-Osco, even ran full-page ads at their own expense announcing that the Wow! line of potato chips had arrived on their shelves.

Doug Smith, ex-grocery manager, now meat manager, at Marty's IGA & Ben Franklin Crafts Supercenter in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, said the store has had Wow! chips for more than a year and they are "still doing real well." But Pat Redmond, grocery buyer for Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash., has been disappointed by Wow! sales this year. Both retailers allocate a 4-foot section to the chips.

Don Stuart, a partner at Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn., says Wow! chips at first established great momentum in tests in Columbus, Ohio, and in Indianapolis, according to ACNielsen figures from March 1997 to May 1998. Then they peaked and headed south, Stuart said.

"They fell to roughly a quarter of their peak volume over the course of 10 months, and there's been no uptick," he said. "One hypothesis is that this type of nonfat product will appeal to a small loyal segment, but they're certainly not for everyone, and are not a replacement for mainstay, salty-snack products."

Stuart also noted that a recent test of an Olean product by Eagle Snacks, in Portland, Maine, ended with the item being taken off the shelves.

Procter & Gamble bought Eagle Snacks brand from Anheuser-Busch and tested two new products: Crispy Corn Twists -- made with Olean -- and the Eagle Pretzel Mini-Bites. The test went from August 1998 through March 1999, when the items were removed from retailers' shelves, according to Lisa Jester, a P&G spokeswoman.

"Basically, we were pleased with our learnings in the market. As far as where we're going to go next, stay tuned. We expect that we'll be seeing more of the Eagle brand in the future," Jester said. She added that the company is also pleased with the results so far of sales of fat-free Pringles, made with olestra. She said the benefit of Olean is in calorie reduction. Other fat replacers have to increase calories to make up for the flavor, she said.

Regardless of controversy, the Wow! potato chip has to be judged a success, said Phil Lempert, a consultant and NBC correspondent from Los Angeles. But, he cautioned, "as much as we want to think consumers understand the balance of exercise and eating vegetables, when we see these kinds of sales from a factory product, [it shows us that] people do want a magic bullet and they just give lip service to the idea of living longer through living a balanced life."

Brian Riesenburger, general manager of the newly expanded Fairway Market at 74th Street and Broadway, New York, said he opted not to stock the Wow! line, going for the more natural Cape Cod, Garden of Eatin', Guiltless Gourmet and Terra chips. "These are my big movers; they do all my volume," he said.