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Getting a grip on wellness is slippery, but important


Clearly, more vendors think that ‘better for the consumer’ is better for their products. Yet, understanding just what consumers mean by better is important.

In baby food, organic is critical. According to The Nielsen Co., baby food dollar sales increased by 4.4% in the 52 weeks ended Dec. 29, 2007, at food, drug and mass merchants in the United States, excluding Wal-Mart, while organic baby food sales gained 38%. Organics may only represent around 4% of total category sales, but that’s up from 2% in 2004.

Some segments are enjoying torrid growth. Organic baby cereal and biscuits were up 117% in the year ended Dec. 29, 2007, while sales of organic junior baby food were up 124% and sales of organic strained baby food were up a more reasonable, but still impressive, 14% after four previous years of double-digit growth. In contrast, sales of baby foods that are characterized as “natural” actually slipped.

Wellness trends in snacks involve a different set of factors. According to Nielsen Label Trends, only 1.7% of snack items made an organic claim in the 52 weeks ended Sept. 8, 2007, but 34.9% made a fat claim. And not just any old claim; rather, 26.3% of snacks made a claim about a specific fat at a time when transfats were under assault. In contrast, only 3.4% of snacks simply claimed to be “low fat” in the general sense.

How products making specific claims faired in the marketplace is a way of gauging consumer reaction. Probiotic products enjoyed a 141% sales gain for the 52 weeks ended July 14, 2007. Still, total sales were only $282 million. It turns out that the category enjoying the second-highest one-year gain was “absence of a specific fat,” up 38%, but to total sales of $7.9 billion.

Yet, the proportion of products making organic claims last year gained faster than any other category designated by Nielsen. Organic claims went up 26% with “hormone/antibiotic free” claims growing almost as fast at 25%, with a big drop-off to the next quickest, “whole grain,” advancing 9%.

Only “caffeine-free” declined as a claim,down 3% last year,although, given recent publicity about studies showing negative health effects, that might change. The categories with the smallest positive growth were the “preservative-free” or “salt/sodium” claims, both up 2%.

So, wellness is a tricky issue. That which grows fastest doesn’t necessarily grow the most in dollar terms. Still, in some product categories, not staying in touch with trends could drive away many, and perhaps most, customers.

Certainly, vendors are reacting. Adam & Eve, for instance, recently announced that it has expanded its popular Sesame Street juice box line by adding 100% organic produce in three varieties. The organic baby juice segment, by the way, increased by 112.3% last year, a nice pace even if a bit slow compared to the 378% pace set by the organic baby milk and milk flavoring segment. Organic baby juice is only a $2.6 million segment at Nielsen stores and organic baby milk and milk flavoring just $17.4 million, but look for new products in those areas, and a passel of receptive consumers.

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