Photo by Thinkstock

Photo by Thinkstock

Weight Control Category Bulks Up

Supermarket dietitians weigh in on the fast-growing weight control category

Whether they’re in powder or liquid form, shoppers continue to gravitate toward weight control products that make them feel full longer and offer grab-and-go convenience.

Supermarket dietitians report an uptick in sales of select SKUs. Products packed with protein are faring particularly well, especially ready-to-drink shakes. So are items with low calorie or fat content and adventurous flavors like butter pecan and bourbon vanilla.

At Schenectady, N.Y.-based Price Chopper [2], Atkins shakes are top sellers once again after a period of decreased sales. According to Maureen Murphy, consumer trends, nutrition and lifestyles manager for the chain, purchase patterns in this category tend to ebb and flow.

“In the beginning of the year, people are always trying to lose weight so they buy more weight control powders and liquids to help jumpstart the process,” said Murphy. “Low carb was very big a few years ago, but waned for a while. Now, it’s a big thing again, which is why Atkins shakes are one of our most popular products at the moment.”

Price Chopper shoppers also go for low-calorie meal replacement shakes by Slim-Fast and Kellogg’s Special K. Premade products like these are more popular than powders there as they offer greater convenience.

When they do buy powder mixes, shoppers want high-protein and low-calorie offerings, added Murphy.

Sales of weight control liquids/powders are up overall. According to SymphonyIRI Group, the Chicago-based marketing research firm, the category experienced an increase of 9.8% to $858.1 million during the 52 weeks ending Jan. 27.

Sales of Atkins Advantage products were up 13.1% to $24.6 million, Ensure Plus increased 25.3% to $61 million and Designer Whey also jumped 14.9% to $7.5 million.

At Bashas’ [3], a Chandler, Ariz.-based chain, flavor is the ultimate factor that drives people to pick and stick with products in this category, said Barbara Ruhs, Bashas’ in-house dietitian.

“A lot of times, protein powders are not very tasty, kind of chalky even, and leave an aftertaste that people do not like,” said Ruhs. “So once people find the amount of protein or other ingredients they want in a powder or shake, they taste test the various products to find the most flavorful. Manufacturers have started to figure this out and they have come out with some innovative flavors.”

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Ruhs admits to sampling all sorts of selections before settling on one for herself. When she tried Tera’s Whey Bourbon Vanilla Organic Whey Protein, the flavor “blew her away” and she has been buying the product ever since.

The Tera’s Whey line includes other unique powder varieties like Cranberry Pomegranate, Fair Trade Certified Dark Chocolate, Goat Whey and Wolfberry — also known as goji berry.

Other brands also make flavors aside from the standard chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. Atkins sells premade Caramel Latte shakes. Ensure offers grab-and-go packs of butter pecan-flavored blends and Nutrament has shakes in flavors like eggnog.

“I expect to see this category continue to mimic the flavors popping up in other health sections of the store, like the energy bar section,” said Ruhs. “I could see shakes and powders in flavors like sea salt and caramel or glazed pecan.”

Along with great flavor, shoppers at Bashas’ seek products packed with protein. Matrix is a big seller there. Packages of Matrix 5.0 powder boast the words “sustained release protein blend” on the front. According to Ruhs, some protein products have as much as 30 grams of protein or more per serving.

“For most people, the goal of consuming protein is to keep from getting hungry too quickly, but a lot of people have the misconception that if they consume more protein, it will automatically give them more muscle mass, which isn’t true,” she said. “Dietitians should help educate shoppers on the healthiest way to incorporate protein products into their diets so they don’t overdo it.”

Portioning Protein

Consuming more than 30% of daily caloric intake of protein without increasing exercise can also lead to unwanted weight gain from the additional calories they are consuming, added Ruhs.

Indeed, a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society revealed that consuming greater quantities of protein while maintaining the same level of exercise can lead to weight gain. And not just muscle mass, but equal amounts of muscle and fat. Some shoppers understand this concept and actively look for substances with lower-than-average calorie and fat content.

“One new product that has my attention is Betty Lou’s Powdered Peanut Butter,” said Ruhs. “Its marketing material claims that the product has 85% less fat than traditional peanut butter and 45 calories but still has 4.5 grams of protein per serving.”

Bell Plantation is another manufacturer with a powdered peanut butter called “PB2.” PB2’s original peanut butter flavored powder has 5 grams of protein and 45 calories while PB2 peanut butter and chocolate variety has 4 grams of protein and 45 calories.

Special K meal replacement shakes are popular at Price Chopper.

According to Ruhs, these powdered peanut products are intended to be mixed with water, milk or other liquids to form shakes, similar to whey, soy and other protein formulas currently on the market.

Jacqueline Gomes, corporate dietitian for A&P [5], based in Montvale, N.J., reports that the chain’s shoppers are also seeking protein in their weight control products. Pre-portioned, ready-to-drink items with consumer-approved flavors, like those made by Slim-Fast, are front-runners there, she said.

However, the ever-increasing demand for time-saving meal options is also responsible for the sale of some weight control products in A&P’s stores.

“Many consumers use these products not necessarily for weight control but out of sheer convenience,” Gomes said. “We are in an ever-increasing busy world and we have less time dedicated to meal preparation, having a ready-to-drink shake or bar handy works well for many consumers.”

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Convenience-craving consumers abound at Basha’s too. But not all of them opt for premade products, said Ruhs.

Many buy protein powder to add to juice or blend with fruits, flax seed, chia and other healthful mix-ins.

“Smoothies are huge right now and as more people make them at home, they’ve been buying protein powder to help keep them feel full throughout the day. Whey and soy are both popular here,” said Ruhs. “Making shakes and smoothies at home is not only cheaper than buying premade shakes in the long run and quicker than cooking breakfast, but they also allow consumers to know exactly what ingredients are in their drinks.”

Ruhs feels that dietitians should reach out to shoppers to help them learn how to use weight loss products in a healthy way.

Sharing recipes for protein powder and fresh fruit smoothies is a simple suggestion. Balanced pairings of products and real food, like Slim-Fast and an apple, is another option, she said.

Price Chopper’s dietitians mostly offer dietary advice centered on real food. But they do field questions about weight control liquids and powders too.

“We tell shoppers that as with anything, as long as these products are not overused, they are fine. If they are part of a balanced diet or used short term in conjunction with healthy foods as diet-boosting aids they are OK for most people,” said Murphy. “But, we also discuss the problems that could occur if not used properly, like taxing the kidneys by ingesting too much fiber, an ingredient in many weight control products.”

Most consumers tire of weight control products and resume eating real food long before such physical problems could arise. But dietitians should still teach people about the potential hazards to help prevent mishaps, said Murphy.

A&P’s Gomes agrees. She added that when shoppers rely too heavily on weight control concoctions, they can unknowingly deprive the body of essential nutrients.

“A packaged product may be missing out on beneficial phytonutrients and antioxidants that simply can’t be packaged,” said Gomes. “Another reason [to avoid overuse of weight loss products] is boredom and flavor fatigue which can lead to cravings and a complete abandonment of the healthy diet all together. There is simply no replacement for a healthy diet made up of food.”

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