As Britain's waistlines have expanded, so has demand for diet foods. Jane Bainbridge examines the sector's growth.
The diet industry is almost as subject to fads as the clothing market. Just a few years ago it was all about low fat; now health-conscious British consumers are seeking foods that allow them to minimise sugar or carbs. More traditional weight-loss brands such as Slimfast and Weight Watchers have suffered as celebrity-endorsed regimes such as the Atkins and South Beach diets have grown in popularity. However, it is likely to be the low-fat and low-sugar foods that prove successful in the long term.
British consumers are getting fatter, and it is not just a short-term consequence of Christmas bingeing. Nearly two-thirds of males and 57% of females were either overweight or obese in 2002, compared with 1998 totals of 63% and 53% respectively, according to the government's Health Survey for England.
While this is a headache for health professionals, it represents a growing opportunity for the diet food sector. There has been a surge in interest in the subject since the Health Select Committee published its May 2004 report on the link between diet and health, and in particular on the impact of high levels of fat and sugar in food.
For many years the diet food industry consisted chiefly of low-fat products, which are classified as those containing less than 3g of fat per 100g.
The term 'fat-free' can only be used when the product contains less than 0.15g of fat per 100g.
Outside the low-fat category, low-sugar products (usually containing artificial sweeteners and dubbed 'light'), slimming clubs and meal-replacement drinks traditionally made up the remainder of the sector.
That changed in late 2003, when the Atkins diet took the UK by storm.
US cardiologist Dr Robert Atkins' book The New Diet Revolution, which claimed that limited carbohydrate intake was the key to weight loss, was published in the UK in 2000, and as the diet's popularity spread across the Atlantic, the first products from Atkins Nutritionals hit British shelves in January 2004.
Although the Atkins diet has enjoyed a great deal of publicity and celebrity endorsement, it has attracted controversy, and the debate still rages over the efficacy of low-carb diets compared with low-fat ones.
It is hard to give an accurate estimate of the size of the low-carb market - mainly due to the lack of a set definition of what 'low-carb' means - but many food manufacturers clearly see it as a category worth investing in. As well as Atkins Nutritionals and Carbolite - companies founded specifically to capitalise on the low-carb diet - traditional food manufacturers and retailers have entered the market.
In September last year Unilever Bestfoods introduced Carb Options, a low-carb range including sauces, pasta and soups under the Hellmann's and Knorr brand names. It has invested pounds 2m in an ad campaign, using the strapline 'Curb your carbs, not your enthusiasm'. Meanwhile, in the US, Coca-Cola has jumped on the bandwagon with C2, a low-carb, low-calorie cola, though sales have proved disappointing.
Among retailers, Tesco plans to roll out own-brand line Carb Control later this year, and Boots will introduce Locarb, a range of 30 chilled and ambient products.
The phenomenon has affected other areas of the diet food industry. Heinz Weight Watchers added four frozen ready meals to its range in September 2004; as well as being low in fat, they contain fewer carbohydrates.
Weight Watchers launched as a slimming club in the US in 1963, moving to the UK in 1967. Heinz acquired the brand in 1978, and is focusing on the food products side of the business.
While Weight Watchers is by far the biggest slimming club - with an estimated 6000 meetings a week in the UK - there has been a rise in its number of online rivals, including cafeslim.co.uk and onlineslimmingclub.com. With attendances at its slimming sessions shrinking, Weight Watchers has revamped its offering. In the UK it is introducing Switch this month. This has two options on its eating plan: the traditional points-based diet and No Count, where dieters can eat as much as they like from a list of core foods.
'No Count is designed to make people aware of when they are naturally full and more in tune with their body and what they eat, but they don't have to worry about counting,' said a spokeswoman for the brand.
The final area of the diet foods sector is the specialist slimming category, including meal-replacement products and appetite suppressants and controllers.
This market is growing very slowly, according to research company Key Note, with sales reaching pounds 128m by the end of 2004. It is generally women who find this type of product helpful when dieting: 21% of women use them, compared with 14% of men.
Unilever-owned Slimfast is the biggest player in this market, but it has suffered a fall in sales during the Atkins craze.
It relaunched in 2003 with new products, and in July 2004 rolled out Slimfast Optima, which contains 50% less sugar. Recently, the brand has ploughed pounds 2.2m into promotion of a Low Cal Low Carb range, its first attempt to respond to the growing low-carb market.
The Atkins diet may have gained plenty of publicity, but research suggests most people still believe in traditional slimming methods. According to consumer research by BMRB Access for Key Note, 53% of respondents think cutting down on fat is the way to lose weight, compared with 27% who believe it is important to cut down on carbs. Slimming clubs were endorsed by 23%, with 18% saying products such as slimming meals and drinks could be helpful.
Ultimately, despite the recent low-carb fad, there is still room for growth in the traditional dieting sector. Key Note predicts that the market for low-fat and low-sugar products will expand at a similar rate to the overall food market, rising from almost pounds 3.5bn in 2004 to pounds 3.7bn in 2009. In spite of Slimfast's recent troubles, the market for specialist slimming foods is expected to climb too, from pounds 128m to pounds 138m.
ADVERTISING SPEND FOR LOW-FAT AND LOW-SUGAR PRODUCTS (pounds 000) Product Company 2004 2003 1 Shape yoghurt Danone 4487 782 2 Sveltesse Nestle 3197 n/a 3 Mullerlight yoghurt Muller 2993 2890 4 Hellmann's Extra Light Unilever Bestfoods 1051 n/a Mayonnaise 5 Mullerlight Fruit Halo Muller 934 227 6 Dairylea Light Kraft 900 n/a 7 Laughing Cow Light Bel 587 757 cheese spread 8 Officially Low Fat biscuits Fox's 455 n/a 9 Mullerlight range Muller 451 263 10 Go Ahead! yoghurt McVitie's 285 n/a 11 Weight Watchers low-fat Heinz 269 n/a desserts 12 Mini Babybel Light Bel 268 n/a 13 Go Ahead! crispy rice McVitie's 260 n/a 14 Lurpak Lighter Spreadable MD Foods 238 434 15 Semi-skimmed milk Milk Dvlpmnt Council 221 n/a 16 Go Ahead! cereal bars McVitie's 144 n/a 17 Go Ahead! rice crisp bars McVitie's 143 n/a 18 Go Ahead! oat breaks McVitie's 139 n/a 19 Slimming World tuna Princes 135 n/a Source: Nielsen Media Research Figures are for years ending June LOW-FAT AND LOW-SUGAR RETAIL SALES BY PRODUCT TYPE Products 2004 2003 Value Share Value Share pounds m % pounds m % 1 Dairy and alternative 2766 79.4 2707 79.8 2 Snacks, biscuits, cakes, cereals 241 6.9 236 7.0 3 Ready meals 240 6.9 220 6.5 4 Grocery items 220 6.3 212 6.3 5 Other 18 0.5 17 0.5 Total 3485 100.0 3392 100.0 Source: Key Note Data may not equal totals due to rounding
DAVID JAGO, Global new products database director, Mintel
The low-carb diet, which has been in the limelight for much of the 21st century, now seems almost passe, as many dieters look elsewhere for ways to shed the pounds.
Even in the US, where many were attracted by the instant gratification of a low-carb diet, the market seems to be slowing down, and the leading manufacturers of low-carb products are curbing new product development in this area. There is even some evidence to suggest that production of specially prepared low-carb foods will grind to a halt in the US by the end of the year.
The low-carb sector seems to be following in the footsteps of sugar-free and low-fat foods. While dieters initially bought into these, their interest waned after a while, mainly because the products simply did not taste as good as the real thing.
The low-carb craze will also fizzle out in the UK. It has failed to make any significant impact in other parts of the world, and that is unlikely to change.
Rather than looking to the US, observers in Europe should consider a trend that has developed in Australia. Glycaemic index (GI) labelling, which measures the effect of carbohydrates on blood glucose levels, has become commonplace there on packaged products. As awareness of GI grows among diet-conscious Europeans, we will see it cropping up on mainstream food and drink packaging. We have already seen a joint venture between The Sunday Times and Tesco to promote the GI regime.
That said, GI could be a difficult concept for many consumers to understand.
They may turn instead to glycaemic load, which takes into account both the amount and type of carbohydrate, making it more user-friendly for dietary planning.…