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Cookies and crackers are coming back -- with help from some new math that's changing how consumers buy and eat their favorites. Two categories that many consumers had shunned during the low-carb craze, cookies and crackers, are now making their mark as models of adaptation as manufacturers wield ingredient changes to phase out less healthy components, packaging innovations to hit 100-calorie sweet spots, and much more, all in response to shoppers' personal health goals such as reducing trans fats, controlling calories, and adding more whole grains to their diets.
The comeback is due at least in part to the market's prompt reply to public health goals as well. New federal regulations requiring companies to declare on packaged food labels the amount of trans fats in their products took effect Jan. 1, but the rule had been in the works since July 2003, motivating many manufacturers to find ways to reduce or eliminate trans-fat-producing partially hydrogenated oils from their products.
Making the effort
That effort has only been reinforced by a growing consumer interest in natural and organic foods, as well as last year's publication of new federal dietary guidelines that emphasize the importance of whole grains and calorie control in a healthy diet. Today a number of companies are emphasizing whole grains as ingredients in their products, and are marketing new portion-controlled packaging such as 100-calorie packs of cookies.
Retailers, for their part, have been receptive to the changes, even when it comes to iconic brands that a short time ago many would have been loath to see altered significantly.
"Nabisco has taken trans fat out of their full line of Oreo Cookies, and sales are strong," observes Mark Steffan, co-owner of Dave's Supermarket, a Fairbury, Ill. independent. "I believe that parents are more sensitive to buying healthier products for their children today than they were even five years ago."
Kraft Foods, Inc. in December 2005 announced it had successfully completed trans fat reduction efforts, lowering or eliminating trans fats in 650 products while ensuring that the combination of saturated fats plus trans fats didn't increase compared with the original product.
Found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, trans fats raise so-called "bad" cholesterol while lowering helpful cholesterol. The trick for manufacturers is to reduce trans fats without replacing it with saturated fat, which is also a health concern.
"We've responded to consumers' concerns while also delivering on their quality and taste expectations," says Lance Friedmann, s.v.p., global health & wellness and new category development for Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft. He cites Triscuit crackers as an example. "We've seen double-digit growth on Triscuit sales since its reformulation," notes Friedmann.
Pepperidge Farm also says it has "taken a leadership role" in removing trans fatty acids from its products. "Our Goldfish crackers were the first major cracker brand to become zero trans fat, and our line of Pepperidge Farm distinctive crackers have zero trans fat as well," says company spokeswoman Leanne Budolfson.
"Many of our bread products have zero grams [of] trans fat, and we also introduced a zero-grams-trans-fat oatmeal cookie last year," adds Budolfson. "We continue to evaluate opportunities among the rest of our products to reduce or eliminate trans fat as appropriate."
Pepperidge Farm parent Campbell Soup Co., based in Camden, N.J., says that baking and snacking sales were up by 2 percent in its first quarter, ended Oct. 30, 2005. Interestingly, the company reported that sales increased for both its indulgent Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Chunk cookies and trans-fat-free Goldfish crackers.
Another major manufacturer, Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co., said early in December that it planned what it called a major investment in new technologies that would allow for the reduction or elimination of trans fatty acids while also minimizing the saturated fat content of its products.
Kellogg will become one of the first food manufacturers to use low-linolenic soybean oil to reduce or eliminate trans fatty acids, according to David Mackay, president and c.o.o.
"Our goal is to make use of the most innovative ingredients possible and to encourage the accelerated production and adoption of low-lin oils so the public will benefit from this breakthrough technology," says Mackay.
The executive also notes that Kellogg expects to introduce some reformulated products early this year.
In the first quarter of this year, Kellogg will also introduce some reformulated crackers, with more varieties to come later in the year. In the second quarter, additional wholesome snacks will debut, and assuming available supply, some of the company's frozen products will feature low-linolenic soybean oil later in 2006.
Whole grains gain
Last year's new federal nutritional guidelines advising Americans to consume at least three one-ounce servings of whole grains daily has generated a surge in new whole grain product development and, thankfully, sales. To give manufacturers a further incentive to create qualifying whole grain products, the Whole Grains Council has produced a new stamp for packaging, to identify products as good or excellent sources of whole grains. As of December 2005, more than 400 products had been authorized to use the stamp.
According to ACNielsen, overall whole grain product sales increased a healthy 6.3 percent as of Aug. 13, 2005, compared with the previous year. What's more, by product category, the greatest increase in sales of products containing whole grains was registered by cookies, up a whopping 1,364 percent over a year ago, followed by muffins, up 287 percent; fresh buns, up 23 percent; bread and baked goods, up 18.3 percent; crackers, up 10.2 percent; and cereal, up 0.8 percent.
Whole grain sales gains are expected to continue. In September 2005 Nabisco unveiled its new 100% Whole Grain line, including Wheat Thins, Chips Ahoy!, Fig Newtons, and Fruit Chewy Cookies.
"Nabisco is committed to helping people get some of the nutrition they need from the foods they love," says Anne Park, brand manager, biscuit new products-health & wellness at the East Hanover, N.J.-based Kraft subsidiary. "The new 100% Whole Grain snack line offers a convenient, delicious way to incorporate some whole grain foods into an overall balanced eating plan."
Another way to for consumers to watch their weight is by consuming fewer calories -- hence the new emphasis on product portion control in the two categories. Some suppliers have developed 100-calorie (or similar) packaging for cookies, snack crackers, and even popcorn.
Last June Kellogg introduced Right Bites, each box containing six single-serving packs of 100 calories. The line includes Sunshine Cheez-It, Keebler Chips Deluxe, Keebler Sandies, and Fruit Snacks. A month later Kellogg introduced new Gripz snacks, "mighty tiny" versions of Cheez-It baked snack crackers and Chips Deluxe chocolate chip cookies. Designed for active kids between 8 and 11 years old, Gripz come in portable "Rip 'n Tip" tubes that can be torn open any time, anywhere. Gripz Cheez-It snacks contain 120 calories, while Gripz Chips Deluxe have 130 calories.
Last July Nabisco introduced 100-calorie packs of Planters Peanut Butter Cookie Crisps, Oreo Thin Crisps, Chips Ahoy! Thin Crisps, Kraft Cheese Nips Thin Crisps, Wheat Thins Minis, Honey Maid Cinnamon Thin Crisps, and Ritz Snack Mix.
"We've heard very positive things from consumers," says Laurie Guzzinati, senior manager, corporate and government affairs at Kraft Foods. Kraft plans to expand its line of 100-calorie packs, a perfect option for on-the-go consumers who want to take a snack with them in a purse or briefcase, added Guzzinati.
In addition, Pepperidge Farm was expected to launch 100-calorie packs of Goldfish crackers in late January.
The 100-calorie packs are "doing very well" at Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, says Dan Donovan, marketing assistant, corporate communications and sports marketing at the chain, which comprises 138 corporate and 78 independently owned and operated stores. "Many of our customers are interested in portion control, and this packaging helps them keep from simply eating too much. We're seeing a number of manufacturers provide this packaging, and we welcome that kind of innovation and responsiveness to consumer demand."
According to Jean Storlie, a dietitian at the General Mills' Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition in Minneapolis: "The number 100 is easy to calculate and an achievable goal. Portion-controlled snacks with 100 calories or less per serving can help individuals balance their calorie intake with physical activity."
In addition to all of the action at the large food companies, much smaller suppliers are capitalizing on the increased consumer interest in all-natural and organic products. Elsa's Story, based in Israel, and Nature's Path Foods in the Canadian province of British Columbia are looking for increased share in the U.S. domestic market.
Elsa's Story, founded 25 years ago, produces cookies that taste similar to those found in European bakeries, according to Uri Zohar, the company's president. It entered the U.S. market nearly three years ago, and its products can be found in Byerly's, Ukrop's, The Fresh Market in Greensboro, N.C., and some Wegmans stores. Zohar reports a new deal to sell Elsa's Story's products in 600 Target stores, and the company is currently reformulating its cookies to become "all natural," in a bid to attract such retailers as Trader Joe's.
According to Zohar, the "Elsa" in Elsa's Story is meant to represent an "everywoman" to whom consumers can relate.
Canada-based Nature's Path Foods in December rolled out a line of Organic Signature Series Cookies and Crackers. Made with organic whole grain flour, they offer "guilt-free snacks that provide complex carbohydrates and fiber," according to the company.