Minisize me: portion control as the new path to healthy eating, by Euromonitor International
Calorie-controlled mini portions is the snacks and confectionery industries' latest response to healthy eating trends. Tempered indulgence of this kind might just save "junk" food from certain decline, and possible extinction, improving its damaged image in a market preoccupied with responsible nutrition.
Portion control has traditionally been the preserve of Weight Watchers and other diet regimes but now indulgence food industries have hooked onto the merits of limiting calorie counts. With pressure from governments and consumers alike to up the nutritional profiles of their products, snacks and confectionery manufacturers are up against a wall. Many have reformulated their brands, cutting salt and fat levels and removing artificial ingredients but there are limits as to how far they can go. Sugar is central to sweets, and crisps would not be crisps without the fat. That PepsiCo-owned Frito-Lay, the world's number one snack brand, launched a 100 Calorie Mini Bites Cheetos and Doritos range in March proves portion control is being taken seriously by industry majors. Another big name to jump on the bandwagon of late is Hershey, the US's fifth-ranked confectionery player, with its 60-calorie Hershey's Sticks. Later this year, the company will extend its portion control range with a line of 100-calorie snack products.
Small change, big difference
When it comes to food, the value-for-money maxim no longer holds up. Norman Spurlock's 2004 Super Size Me documentary put the spotlight on McDonald's bulk-selling strategy, and the resultant public outrage has had implications right across the consumer foodservice and packaged food industries. Later the same year, confectionery firms agreed to stop selling some of their king-size chocolate bars in the UK as part of a drive to combat obesity.
Portion-controlled options are not only a response to the supersizing controversy, but to more fundamental threats to the future of snacks and confectionery. As global obesity rates reach epidemic proportions (more than one in three US consumers aged 15 and up is obese) the indulgence industries have come under attack. Trans fats have already been banned in the US and the UK is set to introduce labels that would provide at-a-glance information on whether a food is high, medium or low in total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. Laws banning advertising of "junk" food to kids, its consumer core, have also been proposed in the EU and US.
Two approaches to minisizing
Kraft was one of the first companies to launch calorie-controlled offerings, introducing in 2004 100 Calorie Packs in its Nabisco range, including Oreo Thin Crisps, Chips Ahoy! Thin Crisps and Wheat Thin Minis. Cutting calories was not just about making packs smaller, but reformulating the products to reduce sugar and fat levels.
Other manufacturers however have chosen to preserve their product formulations in all their full-fat glory but to keep the serving sizes small to position them as guilt-free indulgences. Nestlé's Little Notions, introduced in the UK in January 2005, are minisized to minimise the damage of their high-calorie ingredients.
Chocolate manufacturers, on the other hand, are trying to straddle the two approaches. By hyping the health benefits of cocoa flavanols, to the cardiovascular system and brain to name but two, chocolatiers can present calorie-controlled products that are both indulgent and nutritious. Mars launched its CocoaVia low-calorie, flavanols-rich brand into the mass distribution channel last year.
Will consumers find minisizing palatable?
Despite consumer disgust at irresponsible supersized portions, snacking still needs to fill the hunger gap, especially in today's market where time-strapped consumers are increasingly replacing meals with on-the-go nibbles. Pure indulgence products are for this reason expected to perform better in the portion-control category than their better-for-you equivalents. Consumers turn to indulgence snacks out of a desire to treat themselves rather than as a means of satisfying their hunger.
Price could prove prohibitive too. While consumers have shown themselves willing to pay more for healthier snacks, they may not be so accepting of price premiums on smaller packs. A 0.71 oz bar of CocoaVia retails for around US$1 in the US, whereas a Hershey's Milk Chocolate tablet of more than twice the size sells for just US$0.69. Those to whom price might not be a barrier, however, would be diet-conscious women, concerned parents and people already suffering from nutrition-related conditions such as high cholesterol.
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