Market View: While the getting is good

Food marketers should carefully consider how they will enter the low-carb niche and capitalize on this fad

By John L. Stanton, Contributing Editor

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Many like to quote the expression, "History repeats itself." However the real expression is, "the failure to learn from history repeats itself." Many leaders of the food industry have forgotten the lessons learned from obsessively mistaking trends for fads. I think the rush to low-carb foods may go down the same path as low-fat, low-cholesterol, and low-sodium.

I believe there's a market for low-carb foods and it will likely grow. But there's a difference between trendy and a trend. My guess is the low-carb craze is trendy and will lead to sales of a variety of products in the short term. But I doubt it's a trend of the magnitude of convenience, ethnic foods, fun foods, and the ilk.

Food marketers should carefully consider how they will enter this niche and capitalize on this current fad. Haven't we learned from past disasters the consumer is fickle, and low-carb is not likely to be the way consumers permanently eat?

I remember speakers at food marketing meetings talking about the American consumer moving from fat (and meat) to diets advocated by the America Dietetic Assn. Nonsense! Sales of low-fat foods bear this out. Some eat low-fat foods. But it's a niche market and doesn't warrant changing your entire R&D program to create low-fat foods.

Jeff Neff's great article in the October 2003 issue of FOOD PROCESSING ["Belt-tightening and the diet aisle," p35] suggests the giants will be less quick to jump on low-carb than they did with low-fat. But Business Week's Dec. 22 issue said giants such as Kraft and General Mills will be climbing on the low-carb bandwagon. A CEO of a major food company recently said the low-carb diet is probably here to stay, that it will be the way Americans eat in the future. It's amazing that Dr. Atkins, the "father of the low-carb diet," was called a quack by the same professional organizations now touting his approaches. It seems everyone is again running for the new food messiah.

All of us can understand the reason for excitement. There hasn't been too much growth in the industry recently and this represents a chance to "get some while the getting is good." At the same time, the Wall Street food industry analysts are pushing for new products regardless of whether it makes long-term sense for the company (after all, their time horizon is as long as it takes to dump a stock). Additionally if a company has a low-carb line of foods, now would be the time to pull out all the marketing stops.

If I were the owner of the Atkins brand I'd be doing everything they are doing; this is what their brand is about! If I were marketing mushrooms, I would push the fact they are low-carb, low-calorie and reasonably high in protein. Why not? Not many other products have these attributes. I would only be hyping an attribute the product always had but people only recently became interested in. I wouldn't be changing the product, investing in R&D, changing distribution channels, etc. That is not the same as making low-carb bread or low-carb milk. When I see all the new low-carb foods now being sold, I am reminded of the movie "Dumb and Dumber."

It is time to focus on what is stable in the American diet, as well as what is new. While the research emphasis is always on what's new, there is likely to be more money in what is the same. I agree dieting and losing weight has been a major food issue in the U.S. for many years. And while many people have been on diets, most have left them behind. As a nutritionist once told me, the most common day to start a diet is tomorrow.

I think concern for weight control is important and shouldn't be overlooked, but that does not mean the industry should make every product low in carbohydrates or make every advertising tag line "low-carb." Obesity and weight management will be around for a long time, but the solution will be life-long trends not diet fads. If the food industry fails to take a leadership role in helping Americans eliminate our obesity epidemic, then making more low-carb food will be just as unsuccessful as the low-fat foods were before it.

The challenge for leadership is to let the company take advantage of short-term opportunities while staying focused on the long-term reasons why people buy food.

John L. Stanton is a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He can be contacted at (610) 660-1607; fax (610) 660-1604; e-mail at jstanton@sju.edu; or www.johnLstanton.com.

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