Macaroni and cheese or scrambled eggs on a stick--the ultimate convenience food for people eating on the run. A Picklevator to lift pickles out of the jar so fingers no longer have to get wet and smell of dill brine all day long. A special nighttime toothpaste that promises to last for hours and eliminate the dreaded "morning breath."

You may never have heard of these products--or want to--but according to Marketing Intelligence Service Ltd., a New York company that tracks new consumer packaged goods, these are some of the top new-product innovations for 1999.

Whether it's a muffin designed to fit into a toaster slot or an ultra-absorbent cat litter to make it easier and more pleasant to clean up after the kitty, this year's top innovations were all designed to make life more convenient--and in some cases cleaner or healthier.

For example, there's Colombo Yogurt's Spoon-in-a-Snap, which features a two-piece plastic spoon attached to the bottom of the yogurt lid. Just snap the spoon together and eat yogurt any time, anywhere. "It's just one less thing to forget to get," said Tom Vierhile, general manager of Marketing Intelligence, publisher of Product Alert and Productscan Online (www.productscan.com).

The top innovative products are not necessarily the best sellers, Vierhile said, but they illustrate "cases where companies took a risk and did something dramatically new and different."

One of the most notable, Vierhile said, is Benecol, a butter-like spread made by McNeil Consumer Healthcare--the same Johnson & Johnson division that makes Tylenol and Motrin--that reduces cholesterol within two weeks of eating three servings a day.

Benecol is one of the new "functional foods" that have produced excitement in the food industry, with companies rushing to develop products with built-in health benefits. "It's a way to sell value-added products at a premium price," Vierhile said.

That excitement helped boost the number of product introductions to 25,928 in 1999, up 3 percent over 1998. The increase is due in part to the booming economy, which Vierhile said "encourages people to take risks and develop new products."

Some of those risks, however, were stranger than others. There was round bacon and hamburgers shaped like hot dogs--"attempts at cross dressing in food products," Vierhile said. Neither product made Marketing Intelligence's top-10 list.

Vierhile predicts even more functional foods in 2000, especially those involving soy. "Soy will be in places it's never been before, even breakfast cereals," he said.

At the same time, food companies will continue to boost the intensity of flavors, partly to address the less-sensitive taste buds of an aging population. "Flavoring will reach a new level as companies move from subtle to in-your-face" bold tastes, Vierhile said.

But more than anything, manufacturers will continue to try to make foods more convenient for people on the go. In 1999, the top winners in this category included IncrEdibles from Breakaway Foods. Macaroni and cheese, chili mac or scrambled eggs (plain or flavored with cheese, bacon or sausage) are packed into a cylinder, in which they can be microwaved and then eaten like a Popsicle--for $1.50 to $2 a serving. New to the market, they are expected to be available in the Washington area in the first three months of next year.

Also new are Kellogg's Eggo frozen toaster muffins, shaped like thick slices of bread that can fit into a traditional toaster. No more cold muffins, or muffins made spongy by microwave heating; instead, a crisp hot muffin that can be eaten on the run.

Another trend--interactive foods that consumers can prepare with little hassle--is evident in the 1999 innovation Post Kids Create a Crunch Cereal Mixing Kit. Packets of marshmallows, sprinkles, granola and blue rice cereal are included with four different sweet cereals so kids can mix and match.

Of course, cleanliness is important, too. That's why Dean Foods developed Peter Piper's Pickles with the Picklevator, a plastic serving basket in the jar that lifts the pickles out of the brine for a "drip-free selection." Yes, "you could always use a fork to keep your fingers clean, but then you have to wash the fork," Vierhile said.

There's also Crystal Clear Litter Pearls, made of lightweight silica sand that absorbs liquid in seconds, leaving the cat litter dry to the touch.

And for the grease monkeys, there's a new kind of hand wipes--the Lava Heavy-Duty Hand Cleaner Towels (far tougher than those gentle baby wipes that started the portable cleaning trend) to remove paint, stain, glue and grease.

More cleaning wipes are due out next year, Vierhile said, including Mr. Clean Wipe Ups and Clorox disinfecting wipes. Similar products were introduced about 10 years ago but failed because they were too expensive, Vierhile said. But "the economy is better now, and there's greater concern about bacteria with all the new antibacterial products now on the market."

Also making Marketing Intelligence's top list of innovations for 1999 was Arm & Hammer Dental Care P.M. fluoride toothpaste, designed to reduce sticky plaque and odor-causing germs--leaving a refreshing taste long after brushing and getting the morning off to a fresh start.

And to record all these new products there's the Polaroid I-Zone instant pocket camera, which takes mini-photos on a special kind of film to create stickers that can be traded with friends or put on books, backpacks--or even new products. Who knows where the next great innovation will come from?

New and Consuming

More than half of the 25,928 products introduced this year were food or beverage items.

Food or beverage 57%

Health and beauty aids 37%

Household products 3%

Other 3%

SOURCE: Productscan Online

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