With a simple comparison of new product SKUs over the past few years, one might conclude that consumer interest in products with 100-calorie claims is waning. As of Sept. 30 this year, manufacturers have introduced only 102 new SKUs of these products versus 149 in 2010 and 206 in 2009, according to London-based Datamonitor’s recently published “Product Launch Analytics.”
But a number of American bakery giants beg to differ, and are betting that demand for 100-calorie products is more than just a fad.
“While the segment is not as large as it once was, there is still a place for great tasting, rewarding calorie-controlled snacks,” says Jane Ghosh, marketing director, Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich. “We continue to strengthen our portfolio with new products such as Keebler 100 Calorie Right Bites Sandies, Fudge Dipped Shortbread cookies and Keebler Right Bites Dark Chocolate Mini Fudge Stripes cookies.”
Heather Collins, director of marketing for Sara Lee Fresh Bakery, points out that the company’s 100-calorie Soft & Smooth Mini-Bagels, introduced in 2009, and the recently added 100 percent Whole Wheat Thin Style Buns are a hit, particularly with women. “Moms find that mini-bagels are a great pre-portioned breakfast, but are also perfect for on-the-go snacking, especially for their children,” Collins says.
Independent consumer research also supports this confidence in calorie-controlled portions. In its “Snack Foods in the U.S.” report released in June, Rockville, Md.-based Packaged Facts found that “health continues to be a strong motivator for food and beverage purchases among consumers” across all age groups, and will remain that way in the foreseeable future. Over half of survey respondents said they currently are trying to lose weight.
More than three-quarters of U.S. adults surveyed by Packaged Facts in March said they place importance on calories when making food and beverage purchases. In its “New Product Pacesetters” report released at the same time, SymphonyIRI Group, Chicago, research attributes the success of such products as Trop50 orange juice and Budweiser Select to the fact that they provide a “full calorie” product offering with significantly fewer calories.
Sales of packaging equipment also bode well for the continued expansion of 100-calorie snack packs. In its “Trends and Advances in Food Packaging” report, Reston, Va.-based nonprofit trade association Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) noted, “single serve and on-the-go type products, as well as right-size portions, are driving packaging innovation.” Indeed, one director of new product development at a major snack food manufacturer said in teh survey that his company planned to purchase seven to nine vertical form/fill/seal machines to facilitate the 30 percent increase in its production of single-serve 100-calorie packs.
Although most medical experts agree that there is no magic bullet when it comes to weight loss, Packaged Facts’ “2010 Weight Management in the U.S.” report says there is a magic number when it comes to marketing calorie-portioned conscious products. That number, according to the report, is 100.
So, why the decreasing number of new 100-calorie SKUs? It isn’t that the market for these products has softened, researchers say. The problem is that consumers are becoming somewhat more skeptical of, confused by and even disillusioned with products that have not met expectations.
“Where done effectively, 100-calorie packs are doing well; Nabisco Teddy Grahams is an example,” says Wade Hanson, director, research and consulting, Technomic Inc., Chicago.
But when quality is questioned, like with the “thins” versions of household name and even some iconic branded snacks that may have some of the flavor but lack the texture of the originals, that is when consumers have begun to question the product’s value, which has perhaps caused sales to slump, he says. “So while sales may be down, it is a function of execution, not consumer interest. When done at a high level, consumers still like the portion controlled products.”
He cautioned that consumers are not likely to give manufacturers who miss the mark the first time too many more chances to get it right. SymphonyIRI findings agree that successful marketers of reduced calorie products “understand that many consumers are not willing to sacrifice flavor to save on calories, a critical mindset that is at the center of these products’ marketing campaigns.”
Finding the newest magic number
Packaging is another issue altogether, according to consumer researchers.
Tom Vierhile, Datamonitor’s innovation insights director, explains that many products tout the 100-calorie-per-serving claim without changing their packaging to a single serving size. “This is the case for some of 2011’s products, including bread products,” says Vierhile. “In some respects this waters down the entire concept since the product is not really portion controlled–there is nothing to stop a consumer from eating multiple pieces of bread, etc. from the same package.
“In some cases it isn’t clear whether or not the 100-calorie size is offering any calorie savings at all over a so-called ‘regular’ product,” he adds. SymphonyIRI noted in its “State of the Snack Industry” report last year that almost half of consumers want comments or symbols on packages to help easily pick out healthier options.
This year, some bakery product manufacturers are hoping that they have hit on another magical number: 150. Last spring, for example, Kraft expanded its line of SnackWell’s sweets to include 150-calorie snack packs of fudge crème- and vanilla crème-filled Brownie Bites. Kraft promises that its single-serve packs will deliver a satisfying portion with an “off-switch,” a concept that should satisfy Vierhile’s portion control concerns.
The Northfield, Ill.-based company backed up this launch with some major marketing dollars, including a sexy total package makeover and ads in such popular national consumer publications as People, Cosmopolitan and Glamour, encouraging weight-conscious women to “Be Bad. Snack Well.” In addition, Kraft has brought four 100-calorie pack cookies formerly sold under its Nabisco brand over to the banner.
“Through our research, we found women’s attitudes and preferences toward portion control have evolved in recent years,” said Steve Siegal, SnackWell’s senior brand manager, in a press release. “Today’s women want ‘calorie control,’ but they also want snacks that can satisfy their sweet tooth with rich flavor experiences and a variety of portion sizes.”
Last summer, Hostess Brands also introduced its 150-calorie SmartBakes lines with two varieties of individually wrapped streusel cakes and three flavors of portion-pack whole-grain muffins. Hanson points out that muffin sales had been slumping until mini and 100-calorie portion versions hit the market.
“The availability of smaller portion options have given the muffins category a new life,” he says.
Sara Lee Foodservice is no stranger to portion controlled products. The company had already established a place in this niche by offering its “rich, indulgent and decadent” Bistro Collection of cakes and pies. Last summer, the company joined the “better-for-you” marketing movement by launching a five-variety 150 Calorie Cup Dessert line featuring chocolate or vanilla cake crumbs layered with pudding, fruit and crème or lemon curd.
“The early response to the Sara Lee 150 Calorie Dessert Cups has been very favorable, particularly within the healthcare, school and commercial restaurant segments,” says Vic DeMartino, director of marketing for Sara Lee Foodservice.
Making a deposit on portioning
Bakery manufacturers who want to add mini muffin or cupcake items to their product lines and need high output levels can expect to invest up to $150,000 for an industrial mini products piston depositing machine that will turn out 700 to 900 pieces per minute, says Lance Aasness, vice president of The Hinds-Bock Corp. in Bothell, Wash.
“Because mini products generally weigh about an ounce, you need equipment with more pistons with enough speed to get the desired throughput pounds per hour,” he explains. “On a regular size muffin line, you might need six or eight metering pistons, while a mini muffin line might require up to 18.”
Two years ago, Canton, Mass.-based Reiser Inc. started receiving a flood of inquiries from all over the baking industry for equipment to produce individual portion packs, says John McIsaac, the company’s vice president of strategic development. Reiser’s answer for large bakery operations that need to turn out small portions in a high capacity environment is its series of Vemag HP dough dividers and depositors. A variety of attachments allow the Vemag to be adjusted to accommodate any size product.
“The portion control trend is increasing,” McIsaac says. “While there is a negative aspect associated with increased packaging, the convenience and health aspects seem to be winning out.”
Whatever a bakery manufacturer’s packaging goals, PMMI vice president of industry services Tom Egan recommends that design should be a team effort that includes all the materials and equipment suppliers in the earliest stages of the process.
To provide a resource for dialogue among bakery manufacturers and packaging and processing suppliers, PMMI has developed a website where they can get and share news and information, track trends and network “24/7/365,” says Egan. Included on PMMI’s Connected Communities site is a blog featuring the insights and analysis of a range of industry experts.
“Customers are telling us that the line between processing and packaging is blurring,” he explains. “That’s why it’s more important than ever to design fully integrated solutions.”