Every January brings a rush for low-fat, low-calorie products, but healthy alternatives have become a year-round must-stock

We may be a so-called nation of fatties, but when January comes around every man and his dog hops on the healthy eating bandwagon to fight off the excesses of December. But these days it's not only the good work of new year's resolutions that gets consumers reaching for the low-fat, low-calorie lines; the market is storming all year round.

According to Mintel's Reduced Fat and Reduced Calorie Foods report published in April 2007, the market has continually grown over the past five years, to reach an estimated value of £2.2bn. It is now so big that reduced fat, reduced calorie products (RFRC) account for about 10% of the market for processed foods, and despite trends towards healthy eating the rate of market growth of RFRC has exceeded that of slimming products and fresh fruits and vegetables.

However, the report also reveals that over recent years the growth rate has been slowing, and as consumer perceptions towards healthy eating change and more standard ranges start reducing fat, sugar and even salt content, this category is likely to see its sales continue to slow. "In years to come, as more standard ranges embrace consumer desire for healthy food, by default consumers will be buying healthier foods and will not have to make the effort to buy specific RFRC products," claims the Mintel report.

"Whether consumers will turn to specific RFRC products in the same number as they have to date remains to be seen, as there are more options open to them and perceptions as to what makes food a healthy option are changing."

Müller UK's latest research into healthy eating trends backs up this thinking. Chris McDonough, marketing and R&D director of Müller UK, says: "Diets are hard work for most people. They provide a structured approach, but they aren't enjoyable and most people cave in because of the punitive and denial nature of diet regimes - so short cuts to healthier eating via low-fat, lower-calorie, less salt and sugar products are welcome as they provide a helping hand. But, at the same time, almost half (44%) of consumers surveyed said that they thought low-fat food tastes awful, so for them it's a trade-off between taste and a healthier product."

According to Müller's independent research, the trend is moving from prescriptive calorie-counting and the structured routine of diet plans to a more holistic, more natural attitude, in which people want positive, additional health options. McDonough says: "The percentage of people who are on a diet or following a diet plan has fallen from 8% four years ago to just 3% in 2007.

People are less concerned about weight and more worried about their shape, and in terms of ingredients their main concerns are focused on fat content, artificial additives, sugar, cholesterol and salt."
While this move away from strict diet regimes towards a more holistic approach to healthier eating is having a positive impact on yogurt sales in general, Müller believes it is also the reason why some consumers are moving out of the 'diet' or virtually fat-free (VFF) yogurt sector. While overall yogurt sales have increased by 3.8% during the past year, the £252m VFF yogurt sector, which accounts for more than a quarter of yogurt sales, has recorded a 5% decline.

In light of these changes in attitude, Müller has reappraised the positioning of its Müllerlight brand and is embarking on a major relaunch this year. The relaunch is aimed at shifting perceptions of the brand beyond simply being a 'diet' product and projecting it as a brand which can make a positive contribution towards a balanced diet.

The programme of activity kicks off this month with the introduction of new packaging using visual cues to highlight the fact Müllerlight is fat free and contains real fruit, is low calorie and high in calcium. The addition of two new single pot varieties - wild blueberry and peach - bring the number of flavours in the range to 16. A £4.4m marketing spend including new TV advertising will see Müllerlight back on air for the first time in 18 months and includes a high-profile consumer press campaign, sampling and in-store pos and promotional activity.

"We're not abandoning the dieting platform altogether - we'll still be communicating with dieters through slimming media and other specifically targeted marketing activity - it's more about a change in emphasis
to open up the brand to consumers who would be put off by Müllerlight being associated solely with diets and dieting," says McDonough.

"Only a fifth of consumers say that they use diet food and drink products. For most people, it's about having a healthy, balanced diet and incorporating foods which enable them to achieve this. Taking this as our cue, the new campaign will position Müllerlight as a 'good for you product that's fat free' rather than a diet product."

Fellow yogurt supplier Danone sought to bring something extra to the diet market back in 2006. It introduced functionality to the diet yogurt sector with the launch of Shape Lasting Satisfaction, which contains a special blend of effective fibres and proteins (Shape EFPTM) and is designed to help consumers feel satisfied for longer. The yogurt is fat free, has no added sugar, is free of artificial colours and preservatives, has added essential B vitamins, and each pot gives 29% of the recommended daily calcium intake.

Mintel's RFRC report maintains that manufacturers need to follow this functional approach to ensure the continued appeal of low-fat, low-calorie products. "Although there is a large potential market for products that help healthy eating, consumers have made other changes to their diet rather than increase the number of RFRC products they eat, claims the report. "These include the increased use of functional foods, more use of fresh ingredients, spending more time on food preparation and the adoption of organic or natural foods. RFRC products need to incorporate the other areas of healthy eating into their products. Consumers are concerned about ingredients so organic ranges and more functional versions will appeal."

Weight Watchers continues to expand its portfolio of healthier products under various licences. Weight Watchers from Anthony Alan Food's, for example, has introduced caramel cake bars and almond cake slices, while Petty, Wood has relaunched the Weight Watchers fruit spreads range. And in autumn last year, Weight Watchers from Heinz (WWfH) introduced premium low-calorie products to the frozen category for the first time with the launch of WWfH Taste Temptations, a range of frozen ready meals and desserts. There are four ready meal varieties with a rrp of £2.29 and two Taste Temptations Delicious Desserts with a rrp of £1.99.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia remains a well established 'diet' brand, and product development by Kraft Foods is ensuring its continued success. Dave McNulty, convenience sales director at Kraft Foods, says: "An increasing number of consumers want a snack that is tasty and filling, yet at the same time lower in fat and calorie content than traditional snacking options. Women tell us their ideal snacks are portion controlled and individually packed just for them."

To support healthy eating trends, Kraft Foods has reduced salt and fat content within existing ranges, as well as introducing products such as Philadelphia Splendips. Philadelphia Splendips Chives (crunchy chive crackers with reduced fat chive Philadelphia and tomato chutney dip) is the most popular variety, and comes in packs pricemarked at £1.15 to help independent retailers maximise sales opportunities. "The 125g tubs of Philadelphia Light are also popular and ideal for consumers to keep in the fridge for use in cooking," says McNulty.

United Biscuits UK (UBUK), which manufactures the Go Ahead! range of low-calorie, low-fat snacks, stresses the importance of retailers allocating the right amount of space to healthier products. Alice Cadman, head of strategic projects at UBUK, says: "Healthy eating is no longer a fashionable trend in the UK, it's a way of life, and retailers who do not stock the right blend of healthy products will see their business suffer. Ultimately, their customers will go elsewhere to get what they want and this, increasingly, is healthier alternatives.

"Healthier products should usually be found in two locations within most stores," adds Cadman. "First, retailers ought to stock well-merchandised, dedicated fixtures that offer consumers a wide range of healthier products or products that have special dietary benefits. Healthier products should also be found within regular category fixtures as extensions to brand portfolios."

The Go Ahead! range, which includes Crispy Slices, Bakes, Crispy Bites and Crinkly Crisps, is now worth £50m, and sales of Go Ahead! Yoghurt Breaks have increased by 42% in the past year, while the Bakes range is up 40% year-on-year.

"The success of the Go Ahead! range reflects the nation's desire to be provided with healthier, convenient alternatives that don't sacrifice taste or quality ingredients, and is also testament to the fact that consumers don't want to feel guilty about snacking on sweet treats," says Cadman. "There is a great sales and profit opportunity for retailers to stock the right brands and products. Knowing your own customer is key."

Within the healthy biscuits category, UBUK McVitie's Lights range, which comprises McVitie's Light Digestives, McVitie's Light Chocolate Digestives, McVitie's Light HobNobs and McVitie's Light Rich Tea, is also growing by 20% year on year. "Retailers should stock light variants of established brands to meet customers' desire to be able to eat products they know and enjoy, without feeling guilty," says Cadman. "Each variant has reduced fat and reduced salt, so consumers who are concerned about health can still enjoy an everyday treat."