When developing healthier products, proceed with caution

by Bryan Salvage
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Eating healthier is no longer a fad; it’s a strengthening trend on a very fast track in the U.S. As a result, the market is being flooded with food products touting low fat, no fat, less salt, reduced and low calories ... and the list goes on and on. Processors devoted to creating healthier alternative products should be applauded. But companies considering entering this arena for the first time must be careful.

“Making foods healthier whenever possible is a good thing, but one must always remember people want whatever they eat to look good, taste good, smell good and to have good mouthfeel,” Alan Turover, co-president of The Turover Straus Group, Springfield, Mo. – one of America’s leading food innovation concepting and prototyping firms – told me. “That is why after setting the marketing and technical parameters of any new formulation project, we begin the work in the kitchen with our culinary team. If it doesn’t taste great, people won’t buy it more than once.”

Leading brands could jeopardize their leadership status by making healthier alternative products that don’t meet consumer expectations. “Leading brands got to be leading brands because they learned to meet or exceed consumer expectations,” Turover continues. “Consumers may ‘talk’ about wanting healthy products, but they are not usually willing to lose the sensory qualities that made the food popular in the first place.”

Processors must never forget what made their product popular. “A healthy alternative to a leading branded product should be considered an added benefit, but never a substitute for great hedonics,” he said.

Lynn Dornblaser, new product guru for Mintel International Group in Chicago, relays a story from years ago when a top executive from Oscar Mayer spoke at a new products conference about Oscar’s new Big & Juicy line of extra-large hot dogs (introduced in 1993). “During the question-and-answer session, someone asked him about the fat content because it was introduced at the height of the low-fat, no-fat craze,” she recalls. “His response was priceless. He said ‘Big & Juicy hot dogs have 23 delicious grams of fat’ and the line was about exhibiting excellent flavor and delivering an enjoyable eating experience. In the early 90s, that was something many companies completely forgot about.”

The biggest new product opportunity regarding further-processed meat products is to reduce sodium gradually over a period of time, Dornblaser believes. But creating healthier alternative meat and poultry products isn’t easy and processors could also benefit by providing some consumer education on this topic. How can the industry help consumers understand you can’t just simply remove the sodium and fat from a product because each has benefits relating to shelf-life and taste, for example? If consumers have a better understanding of what the issues are, they may have less anxiety about product choices, she says. And healthier-alternative products often cost more than traditional products. Companies should be able to explain why “less” may cost consumers “more.”

Yes, reducing sodium, fat, calories, trans-fat and saturated fat are all major issues, but processors can’t make, nor should they strive to make, their entire product line healthy.

As Dornblaser says: “There’s still a place for those 23 delicious grams of fat.”

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