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. …