On Point: An eye to the future

Healthier foods will be a growing presence on grocery shoppers’ lists.

By Tom Weir

It seems not a day goes by without at least one food company announcing a healthy new product, or maybe a healthier version of an old product. These introductions merit more attention than the thousands of line extensions and other routine new items that are little different from what’s already in the store.

OK, if the slotting allowances on the run-of-the mill are good, take the money and clear some shelf space. But the healthier products are part of what appears to be a strong long-term trend. Supermarkets that give them short shrift now may eventually find themselves at a competitive disadvantage to those that have openly catered to their customers’ concerns about obesity, cholesterol, high blood pressure and other medical conditions with dietary links.

There are political, economic and societal elements to this trend. Some would like to see stricter government regulation of the ingredients food producers use and the products they turn out. Others contend that the free market, responding to demands already being made by consumers, will do the job just fine. This makes for a fine philosophical debate, but it’s probably academic. The end result is likely to be pretty much the same in either case.

As examples, take trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup. After science showed that trans fatty acids in processed foods lower good cholesterol and raise bad cholesterol, the Food and Drug Administration ordered that nutrition facts panels list the amount of trans fats per serving. Manufacturers got busy and reformulated a huge number of products. By the FDA’s Jan. 1, 2006 deadline for disclosure, most packaged foods were able to list zero trans fat— and a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that, contrary to the fears of some skeptics, manufacturers had not substituted trans fat with unhealthy saturated fat.

In the case of high-fructose corn syrup, which has been tentatively linked to obesity, consumer concerns have prompted manufacturers to reduce or eliminate the use of the sweetener without a regulatory push. The Associated Press reported that use of HFCS fell 11% between 2003 and 2008. The fact that nutritionists don’t seem to see significant differences between HFCS and sugar may be scientifically important, but from a marketing standpoint it’s meaningless.

Salt is the next area of contention, with manufacturers voluntarily working hard to develop low-sodium offerings while some public officials and scientists push for regulations to make sure they follow through. Whichever approach prevails, consumers are going to see more products with less sodium.

When a significant number of people don’t want to consume something for any reason, serious or silly, the manufacturer’s job is to give them an alternative. The retailer’s job is to determine the level of demand for such alternatives and make sure they’re in stock. That’s not just for the sake of making the sale but to send the message to those shoppers that here’s a supermarket that knows what they want and carries it.

It’s important, however, to be able to tell the difference between a fad and a trend. Healthier foods now have enough momentum to be a trend. When the next Atkins Diet comes along, cash in like everybody else. Just don’t make any capital investments you’ll be stuck with after the public’s attention wanders.

Tom Weir can be reached at tom@taweir.cnc.net.

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