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Food in the News

Putting a Healthy Spin On Processed Foods

Companies Cut Sugar, Add Vitamins

By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2005; Page A01

After spending millions on advertising their processed food products to children, the nation's food manufacturers are now attempting to appeal to parents worried about childhood obesity and unhealthy eating habits.

Hitting grocery store shelves: Goldfish crackers and Hershey's syrup, both enriched with calcium; reduced-sugar Cocoa Puffs; and scores of other products that emphasize their whole grain and vitamin content alongside their cool packaging and sweet taste.

Hershey Food has introduced a calcium-enriched version of its chocolate syrup. (Hershey Food Corp.)

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"What we're trying to do is provide a nutritional profile that appeals to moms and a taste profile that appeals to kids," said Juli Mandel Sloves, a spokeswoman for Campbell Soup Co.

The better-for-you offerings don't always come cheap. Pillsbury sugar-free chocolate chip cookie dough, for example, costs $3.49 for a package that makes 12 cookies. Regular chocolate-chip dough, which makes 20 cookies, costs $3.19. The company said the sugar-free ingredients cost more.

Nor do the new choices necessarily mean fewer calories. A serving of the reduced-sugar version of Trix, with 75 percent less sugar, has the same number of calories -- 120 -- as the original. General Mills Inc. said that's because it had to add other extra carbohydrates to maintain the cereal's texture when it reduced the sugar.

That has some nutritionists concerned. When it comes to healthy eating, the key issue is calories, said Jeanne P. Goldberg, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutritional Science and Policy at Tufts University. "Are they less? If it's the same, what's the big deal?"

Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer activist group that this week called for curbs on junk food advertised for kids, said reduced-sugar cereals is a good first step. But "fortified junk food is still junk food," Wootan said. "Is it better to give your child crackers fortified with calcium, or carrots or an apple?"

Offering products with reduced sugar content or fortified with vitamins is "a good PR move," said Laurie Klein, vice president of Just Kid Inc., a Connecticut market research company that develops new product concepts and advises many food companies on their product lines. The new offerings can show a company is trying to "address the issue of making healthier offerings," Klein said. "It's up to consumers to decide whether to accept and change their lifestyle and habits."

Kraft Foods Inc. announced plans 18 months ago to review all of its food products to make them more healthful. Since then, the company has removed trans fat from a number of its crackers and cookies, reduced fat and sodium content in its popular Oscar Mayer Lunchables, and reformulated the recipes for some of its best sellers -- Wheat Thins, Ritz crackers, Oreos and Chips Ahoy -- to package them in 100-calorie pouches.

In packaging and placement on grocery-store shelves, the 100-calorie product is designed more to catch a mom's eye than a child's. But, Klein said, "once these adult-directed products get into the household, they will trickle down to kids as well."

This year, Kraft plans to introduce whole grains into some of its crackers and cookies. Whole grains have become this year's must-have ingredient since numerous scientific studies have linked them to reduced risks for heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

General Mills is moving to boost the amount of whole grains in all of its cereals, including Trix and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Meanwhile, Kellogg Co. is about to unveil Tiger Power, a whole-grain cereal, high in calcium, fiber and protein, designed for the 2- to 8-year-old set.

The scramble to put new products in the grocery store comes as fast-food restaurants have revamped their menus to attract more health-oriented families. Children's meals now come with a choice of fries or fresh fruit and, sometimes, applesauce. For drinks, they can choose soda, apple juice or milk.

In fact, milk sales have soared since the chains replaced the staid and often hard-to-open cartons with snazzy plastic bottles and added chocolate milk to their menus. At Wendy's, milk sales recently jumped to more than 1 million bottles a week from 65,000 cartons a week a year ago, while McDonald's milk sales have doubled, to more than 200 million units over the past year.

Now, the big soft drink companies are trying to break into the milk market. In schools, Coca-Cola Co. is selling Swerve -- a milk-based, canned beverage that comes in chocolate, vanilla/banana or blueberry. PepsiCo is close behind, expected to introduce Quaker Milk Chillers -- chocolate, banana or strawberry -- in stores this year.

Not all dieticians are applauding the effort to boost milk sales, especially since the increase comes through flavored milk. At Wendy's, for example, chocolate milk is outselling plain milk by about two to one.

"We're doing a disservice to kids, to make them think anything they eat or drink needs to be sweet," said Susan Moores, a St. Paul, Minn., nutrition consultant to health organizations and food companies. Moores is also a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association .

Moores is also concerned that manufacturers are using sugar substitutes to reduce sugar. "I'm not a big fan of those for kids. I've not seen any research that says it's harmful, but in volume and the length of times kids will be eating artificial sweeteners, there are healthier options to be had and I would hope that people use those first."

Many of the reduced sugar products rely on sucralose, a non-caloric sweetener made from sugar. General Mills, for example, uses it on cereals. Without it, "we wouldn't have been able to maintain the same great taste with the 75 percent reduction in sugar," General Mills spokeswoman Shelly Dvorak said in an e-mail. The Food and Drug Administration, she added, "has determined that sucralose is safe for everyone -- including children."

Kellogg, on the other hand, decided against using sucralose. "Parents told us they were interested in lower-sugar versions, but not in artificial sweeteners," spokeswoman Jenny Enochson said. So the company lowered the sugar content by one-third "to a point where taste was not compromised." The decision to reduce the sugar in a well-established brand could be risky, said Andy Scheuer, vice president of WonderGroup, a Cincinnati youth-marketing firm that has done several recent projects for Kellogg. "If consumers' preference goes to reduced sugar, it would perhaps lead to a lack of relevance for the full-sugar brand," he said. However, he added, if done right, a company will be able to create demand for the two different versions, just as breweries did when they developed light beer.

Kellogg's Enochson said that was already happening because the company has seen "notable incremental growth" in overall sales in both regular and reduced-sugar versions of Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops. General Mills, like Kellogg, declined to give specific sales numbers, but said its reduced-sugar cereals are exceeding sales expectations.

In the end, it's not the amount of sugar or added calcium that will determine whether these new products are successful, said Tom Wong, senior vice president of Strottman International Inc., an Irvine, Calif., youth and family-marketing firm that advises many food firms: "Taste is what matters."

His company's studies have shown that children resist foods marketed as healthy; they assume good foods taste bad and bad foods taste good. For these new products to sell, Wong said, "kids will have to start to care about all of this."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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