The headlines may scream about soaring obesity levels and the scary consequences to our health, yet the nation is loath to turn its back on cakes and biscuits.
In fact, the UK cake and biscuit market is in good shape, currently worth more than £2.3bn with the two sectors growing at 2.3% and 0.8% respectively (AC Nielsen).
And despite the current health agenda, manufacturers are confident that the category's future is buoyant.
This said, many have latched on to the increased focus on health to offer 'better-for-you' products - sales of which have helped plug the gap created by the decline of sectors such as chocolate biscuit bars.
The growth in popularity of organic products has led many companies to remove artificial flavours, colours and hydrogenated vegetable oil from their recipes.
United Biscuits UK (UBUK) has identified three trends in the core snacking market and developed products in line with these 'healthier', 'pleasure' and 'making life easier' distinctions.
UBUK customer marketing director Mark Sugden says: "Those seeking some indulgence can enjoy McVitie's Moments. For those seeking a healthier alternative, the McVitie's Fruitsters are perfect. The three trends are reflected in the growth of key segments within the biscuits market and the cake segment as a whole."
Sugden believes c-store retailers must take advantage of the special treats biscuit sector if they are to maximise sales. In this sector its McVitie's Moments range has performed well, reaching a value of more than £5m since its launch last year. "The special treats sector is worth £154m and is growing at 17% according to AC Nielsen," says Sugden. "Some 59% of households buy into the sector, making it one retailers can take advantage of."
UBUK has also been busy in the healthier sector, which AC Nielsen rates as worth £332m and growing at 10.2%. Earlier this year it improved its Go Ahead! fruit bakes with 50% more fruit. It has also removed all hydrogenated vegetable oil from its products. Sugden explains: "UBUK has never been more focused on health and nutrition. The company is playing an active role in addressing concerns over the state of the nation's health and has committed to an ongoing programme over the next two years to reduce saturated fats and sodium in its products."
UBUK is also pleased with sales of its range of healthier core McVitie's favourites. The range, which includes light versions of its rich tea, chocolate digestives and Hob Nob biscuits, is growing at 59.5%, according to AC Nielsen.
Its Jaffa Cakes range features on-pack 'low fat' flashes and has seen a 10% growth in sales, driven by a successful promotion surrounding last summer's football World Cup. UBUK expects the new apple & blackberry variant, launched in February, to deliver £2m-worth of incremental sales to the category.
In the whole cakes market, which according to AC Nielsen grew by 4% in 2006, McVitie's Jamaica Ginger Cake is the number one branded product. To build on its success, the McVitie's Cake Company is launching the product in new flavours. A ginger & fruit variant is available now and two limited editions - ginger & lemon and ginger & orange - will launch later this year.
The company has also just launched a range of indulgent cakes which can be eaten hot or cold. The 'Heat to Treat' range includes a double chocolate cake with a rich chocolate sauce filling and lemon cake with a smooth lemon curd filling, rrp £1.29 for two.
Rival manufacturer Burton's Foods, which produces Maryland and Jammie Dodgers brands as well as a number of other products under licence, including Cadbury Fingers, also believes cakes and biscuits have a bright future. Marketing director Jaspal Chada explains:
"The cakes and biscuits category is the third largest ambient grocery category and remains extremely important. Last year was a big growth year for Cadbury Fingers and Maryland cookies. Maryland added more growth than any other top five brand in everyday biscuits. We expect this to continue and we'll be bringing back some limited-edition variants next month."
Burton's Jammie Dodgers brand also underwent a lot of work in 2006. The company reduced salt levels to well below the FSA's target, removed all artificial colours and brought the brand into line with the rest of its range by removing all hydrogenated fats.
"Mums like to be reassured that they are giving their children something natural," says Chada.
When it comes to maximising sales, Chada believes correct merchandising is key. "Retailers need to make sure their shelves aren't cluttered," he says. "Too many products make fixtures confusing. They need to be laid out in an easy-to-follow way."
Chada adds that it's important retailers use key periods of the year to boost biscuit sales. "Biscuits performed very well this Christmas," he says. "Seasonal biscuits showed strong growth of 7% and were driven by premium products and tins.
"It's important retailers don't forget about biscuits at Easter. If retailers are building a confectionery display it's worth merchandising biscuits alongside. Cakes and biscuits are must stocks. They have a 99% household penetration rate and that's not going to disappear suddenly. Any retailers who choose not to stock a good range of something with that kind of penetration will certainly be missing out on sales."
Fox's has focused on delivering products in the natural and indulgent sectors, as marketing director Mike Driver explains: "We've done a lot of work on the Fox's range over recent months. A new indulgent cookie range has been launched and new twists added to classic favourites, such as adding a half-coated chocolate variant to our Crinkle Crunch range. Our packaging has been updated and a revised logo incorporating 'Since 1853' is being introduced across the portfolio."
Driver adds: "Better-for-you products have the fastest sales growth year on year and Fox's has met this demand with its Naturally Fox's launch. By fulfilling the needs of health-conscious and family-orientated consumers looking for natural products, the range is attracting new and lapsed consumers to the biscuit category."
Another company that has benefited from the increased awareness of healthier products is Weight Watchers, which has licensed its name to a number of manufacturers, including Walkers Shortbread.
"Weight Watchers Cookies have been tremendously successful," says marketing and commercial manager at Walkers Shortbread, David Guest. "We now have seven different varieties in the range and consistent sales indicate that they will continue to be a consumer favourite. Earlier this year we re-branded our cookie range to give it a more contemporary look. Sales have grown by more than 10% in the independent trade in the past year and we expect further strong sales growth in 2007."
Elsewhere in the Weight Watchers portfolio, Anthony Alan Foods has relaunched its low-fat cakes range in new packaging to maximise shelf standout. Bosses say the move, together with in-store promotional activity and a TV, magazine and poster advertising campaign, will underline its leading position within the low-fat cakes sector and help retailers meet the demand for healthier options.
Sunder Sander, Londis Leamington Spa, says: "We offer a two-metre fixture of cakes and biscuits, but this will double after a refit at the end of this month. My epos data has told me that I need to give the category more space. At the moment cakes and biscuits make up 8% of my sales, but I expect this to rise after the refit. There's a huge demand for the category out there.
"Sales of better-for-you products are increasing, but people will always want to have a treat. The big sellers are things like Jaffa Cakes, but some other smaller brands including Hellema peanut cookies are also very popular. Our own-brand Londis products also sell well and I use a local cake supplier, which creates a point of difference."
Whole cake - £391.3m
Slices - £107.9m
Small cake - £106.3m
Pies - £92m
Mini rolls - £70.4m
Tarts - £61.8m
Cake bars - £41m
Flapjacks - £37.8m
Other cake - £28.7m
Malt loaf - £21.1m
Muffins - £16.7m
AC Nielsen, sales by value
1. McVitie's Chocolate Digestives
2. McVitie's Hob Nobs
3. Kellogg's Nutri-grain
4. Maryland cookies
5. McVitie's Jaffa Cakes
6. KP Chocolate Dips
7. Quaker Snack a Jacks
8. McVitie's Jaffa Cakes
9. Border Biscuits
10. Kellogg's Rice Krispies
AC Nielsen, February 24, 2007
UBUK has announced a format change for its McVitie's Minis range and McVitie's Jaffa Cakes Grab & Go packs. Products including Mini Chocolate Hob Nobs and Mini Chocolate Digestives will be available in a new pack size of 40g.
The format will be packaged in 24x40g counter display units to maximise in-store visibility
UBUK says its research has shown that consumers want to buy 13% more impulse sweet snacks and believe the new format will plug the gap in the market.
Organic and gluten-free cake producer ROLEY'S says it is the first company to introduce the gluten-free grain Teff to the UK.
The company will use the flour, which originates from North East Africa, in products including chocolate, date & walnut and fruit cakes.
Company bosses say the products will help cater for the one in 100 people in the UK who suffer from gluten intolerance and add value to the free-from market, which has seen sales rise 120% over the past three years.
THE VILLAGE BAKERY has given its organic cake slices range a packaging makeover. The range, which includes apricot and date slices, chocolate brownies and new wheat-free butter flapjacks, will now be packaged in 100% recyclable packaging with Soil Association accreditation.
The flapjacks are suitable for vegetarians and sweetened with nothing but barley oat syrup.