A. Elizabeth Sloan

With 61% of adults overweight and 28% obese, and 13% of kids age 6–8 years and 14% of adolescents overweight, it’s not surprising that the weight-loss market has come back, big time! However, consumers’ motivations, practices, and demands for diet foods, beverages, and programs have changed, offering a myriad of new food-based solutions and repositioning opportunities, some with unexpectedly strong scientific support.

While historically the weight-loss market tends to cycle, favoring one trendy segment over another, Marketdata Enterprises reports that sales in all segments of the weight-loss industry were up in 2001—diet soft drinks by 3.5%, artificial sweeteners 3.6%, health clubs 8.0%, weight-loss centers 8.1%, medically supervised diet programs 7.2%, anti-obesity prescription drugs 6.4%, very-low-calorie diets 14.0%, low-calorie diet entrées 14.0%, retail and multi-level meal replacements and appetite suppressants 18.7%, and diet books, cassettes, and exercise videos 10.0%—and projects a 5.8% annual growth through 2006.

According to the Natural Marketing Institute’s 2003 Health and Wellness Trends Database, 31% of the general population purchased a weight-loss product during the last three months. Dieting/weight loss, high protein, and low carbohydrate are now among the most frequently covered media health topics, right behind women’s health, heart disease, fat, and functional foods, according to Sloan Trends Media Monitoring Program. In Whole Foods’ 2002 survey, health and specialty retailers predict that weight loss will be the second-best-selling up-and-coming supplement category for the next 2–5 years, after bone/joint products.

Four major weight-loss opportunities have recently emerged for food marketers: 
1. Consumer awareness of obesity’s role in accelerating chronic disease has led to a new health-based dieting opportunity. NMI says that one in four Americans managed their weight for appearance purposes and nearly one-third for health in 2002, and projects a 3-year compounded growth rate of 10.5% for dieting for appearance and 25.4% for health. FMI/Prevention’s 2002 Shopping for Health survey found that four in 10 food shoppers suffer or are at risk from high blood pressure or high cholesterol and one-third diabetes or cancer, 18% are obese, and 30% are overweight.

2. Low-carbohydrate, high-protein products are moving mainstream, getting unexpected support from the Food and Nutrition Board’s 2002 report on macronutrients, which called for a reduction of total carbohydrate from an average of 230–280 g/ day to 130, restricted refined and added sugars to 25% of total calories, and placed no upper limit on protein intake. NMI reported that 62% of the population used low-carbohydrate foods and 32% increased their use, and that 61% used high-protein foods and 6% increased their use. Gallup/Multi-Sponsor Surveys reported that just over 40% of 86 million Americans made a strong/some effort to reduce carbohydrates in 2002 and 20% of 60 million dieters were on a high-protein/ low-carbohydrate diet.

3. The amount of weight Americans are trying to lose is at its highest ever, and very-low-calorie products are in vogue. According to a 2001 survey by NPD Group and HealthFocus, nearly two-thirds of meal preparers want to lose at least 30 lb, up from 10 lb just a few years ago.

4. The top three “food type” weight-loss activities include low fat, controlled sugar intake, and lower carbohydrate consumption. NMI reports that 80% used low-fat foods in 2002, 76% low-calorie, 75% high-fiber and 74% fat-free. With FNB sending a strong message to eliminate trans and saturated fats, the new generation of products will likely be based on a new series of health issues.

Gallup/Multi-Sponsor Surveys confirms that 62% of consumers made a strong/some effort to reduce fat in 2002, 56% sugar, 58% saturated fats, 32% hydrogenated oils, and 31% trans fats. Frito-Lay plans to eliminate hydrogenated oils and convert to corn oil, a trans-fat-free oil, in the production of Doritos, Tostitos, and Cheetos in 2003.

Perhaps it is time to reposition existing products once famous for their weight-loss advantage, such as Heinz Weight Watchers frozen products, Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine, and major low-fat lines, away from simply healthy eating and back to their roots.

There’s room for more bars and beverages, too. Information Resources reported mass-market sales for weight-control liquid nutritionals/powders at $1.02 billion, up 18%, for the year ending September 15, 2002. And with another billion dollars’ worth of incremental sales expected for the $1.6-billion bar market by 2005, contemporary weight-oriented bars and confections will surely be a sweet success.

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.