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Weekly Comment

Taking the junk out of junk food

04-Dec-2006

The relationship between child and crisp has long been a sacred one but instead of exploiting this dynamic to shovel unhealthy food into young mouths isn't it about time healthier companies exploited it to push junk food without the junk?

After all, with childhood obesity on the rise, shouldn't the focus now be on how to sell healthy crisps to small people with big appetites?

In devising a workable answer to the above questions, companies are having to indulge in trickery. As the number of overweight children in Europe tops the 14m mark, and with one in five US children now classed as overweight, it's time for a little subterfuge in the battle of the waistlines.

A number of canny companies have cottoned on to the clever tactic of using fruit (typically apples) in place of the standard deep fried potato crisp.

By substituting healthier alternatives for the stuff that starts clogging young arteries, these innovators can go some way towards bridging the gap between the food kids want and the food they should have.

Sadly though, this niche remains a relatively untapped resource with most crisp companies focussing on reformulating their existing lines - wheeling out varieties promising healthier cooking methods, different types of oil, all-natural preservatives and so on and so on.

Rehashing the same old crisps does not go far enough and may even prove a step backwards in changing consumer attitudes to junk food by putting a veneer of healthiness on a product which is generally unhealthy and shouldn't be seen as an acceptable dietary choice.

What's needed is complete reinvention in the sector and there's no reason why this should impact negatively on sales.

If marketed along the same lines - the same character licensing, luridly coloured bags and relentless advertising - it is possible to pull the wool over the eyes of saturated fat-grabbing children long enough to get something healthier into their system.

Admittedly, no child is going to confuse a fruit-based crisp with the traditional potato variety but, once it's purchased, taken home and tried, the manufacturers have won the battle and are on course to take the war as well - provided they can deliver on taste.

Of course this concept has applications for the adult market too. Even mature consumers aren't above a bit of psychological misdirection and, when it looks like a crisp bag, feels like a crisp bag and is sold as a crisp bag the difference between the impostor and the real thing isn't always readily apparent.

While at first glance, the fruit as crisp ruse doesn't appear to be a cash cow, food companies need not be hesitant and shouldn't ignore the burgeoning potential of the dried fruit market.

Analyst Leatherhead International calculate the sector was worth $649 million (€487.9m) in the US, Australia, Japan and the largest five European markets last year and expect growth of 14 per cent in the next five years.

This growth is ripe for further exploitation by bringing in young consumers and families.

Large companies like Kellogg have already made tentative steps into the 'faux' junk food sector with products such as Fruit Winders - one long fruit strip coiled into a roll closely resembling bubblegum.

But now smaller companies are getting in on the act. Last month, a Scottish manufacturer of apple crisps, Snapz, won a contract to supply the major UK retailer Tesco with the brand and enthused about the potential for the product in lunchboxes throughout the English educational system.

Organix, a British firm, has diversified further with a range specifically formulated for babies and the very young. This line includes carrot sticks twisted into the bizarre nodule shapes that children seem inexplicably drawn to and associate with unhealthier fare.

The nutritional tide is turning. Given the soaring unpopularity of 'junk' foods and the proliferation of regulation tightening the rules on everything from advertising to additives, the snack industry is overdue an overhaul.

Perhaps it's time snacks got fruity?

Catherine Boal is editor of bakeryandsnacks.com and confectionerynews.com. She has worked as a journalist in Ireland, the UK, South Africa and France.

If you would like to comment on the issues raised in this article, please email catherine.boal 'at' decisionnews.com

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