100-Calorie Packs Pack It In

The recession is taking a bite out of the once-hot 100-calorie pack business.

A report by market research firm Mintel last week outlined the reasons why: Concerns about taste, price, sustainability and efficacy are trumping 100-calorie packs’ raison d’etre.

Kraft started the whole mini munchie craze in 2004 with its introduction of Oreo Thin Crisps, Wheat Thin Minis and Nabisco Mixed Berry Fruit Snacks. Kellogg and General Mills launched their own 100-calorie entries a year later. Kraft’s line was an immediate hit, logging more than $75 million in sales in their first year, per IRI (which doesn’t measure Walmart sales.)

In contrast, for the 52 weeks ended April 19, sales of most 100-calorie pack items tracked by IRI are down. Dollar sales of Kraft’s Nabisco 100-calorie Oreo Thin Crisps, for instance, fell 30.5 percent to $16.7 million. A company rep, however, maintains its 100-calorie packs are still holding strong. (The company added Oreo Mini Cakesters to its 100-calorie pack line in January.)

Tom Vierhile, director of product launch analytics for Datamonitor, said the segment has run out of steam. Vierhile’s research shows that there’s still a lot of products on the market making the 100-calorie claim—190 were introduced last year and 68 have come out so far this year, but they may be too late to market. “This has been a big trend the last couple of years, but has dropped off this year and at this point it looks like we’re going to come in below where we were last year,” he said.

What happened?

Phil Lempert, a food analyst who calls himself the “Supermarket Guru,” said newly frugal consumers have figured out how to measure out 100-calories by themselves. (Ziploc ads have also maintained that the bags are great for making 100-calorie snacks.) The fact that such packs also contain a lot of extraneous packaging does not sit well with consumers concerned about sustainablilty. Taste is also a factor. Oreos in the 100-calorie pack version don’t have a cream filling.

Another concern is mounting evidence that the products don’t work for weight control. A Journal of Consumer Research study last year, for instance, found participants given 100-calorie snacks while munching in front of the TV ate significantly more. A second group munching from two, regular-sized potato chips bags exhibited greater portion control.

It was almost as though the 100-calorie packs were “ a license to overeat,” said Mintel food analyst Marcia Mogelonsky.

Portion control may also be cycling out, as diet trends tend to do.  Lara Jackle Dickinson, a health foods consultant who worked with Kraft on its acquisition of Balance Bar, said “satiety” is the current hot diet buzzword. The term refers to the hunger satisfaction you get from eating high fiber and protein-laden foods.

Food companies like Unilever have already made strides in this direction. Ads for Slim-Fast, for instance, claim to “control hunger for up to 4 hours” with the addition of HC4, a special formulation of “protein, fiber and lipids.” Dr. Melina Jampolis, CNNHealth.com’s diet and fitness expert, and a weight loss doctor who has her own line of protein bars, said the principle is catching on. “The word ‘satiety’ in and of itself hasn’t caught on [though],” she said. “I don’t think it will. It’s too big of a word for the average consumer.” Instead, satiety is often rebranded as “feel fuller longer” and “control hunger better,” she said.

One thing that might deter “satiety” from becoming the next big food craze, however: Calorie for calorie, protein products are usually more expensive, Jampolis said. Her double chocolate acai bar, for instance, is only 160 calories, has 14 grams of protein and 5 of fiber, and yet, sells for $1.99 ($1.69 on Amazon).

The price point is a deterrent, but “you get what you pay for,” she said.

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