ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Though the low-carb dieting trend may be fading away, food marketers should tap into the public's heightened awareness of health and nutrition to boost product sales, according to a group of food industry experts.
Members of the group shared success stories detailing how they managed to use the media's barrage of low-carb coverage to help their products. The experts were Linda McCashion, vice president, public relations, National Potato Promotion Board, Denver; Jennifer Blanchard-Smith, director of communications, McDonald's Corp., Oak Brook, Ill.; Mary Christ-Erwin, partner and director, food, beverage and nutrition corporate practice, Porter-Novelli, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm; and Larry Shiman, representing Opinion Dynamics Corp., a consumer research company based in Cambridge, Mass.
The National Potato Promotion Board has turned the tide against potatoes -- shunned by serious low-carb dieters -- with a blitz of educational materials that aggressively point out potatoes' attributes, such as their being a good source of potassium, vitamin C and fiber. NPPB's educational materials have been particularly effective at supermarket points of sale, McCashion said.
McDonald's, much maligned in the consumer press, has made an opportunity out of being in the spotlight by telling the public what it has done, and is doing, to inform consumers about the food it offers and healthy eating in general.
Meanwhile, Opinion Dynamics' latest research shows the low-carb craze may be on its way out. ODC's Shiman pointed out that, as of August, only 11% of respondents in a poll of 7,500 people over the last year said they're on a formal low-carb diet, such as Atkins or South Beach. Just 10% of that 11% said they would likely, or somewhat likely, be on such a diet two years from now.
"I just don't see a trend there," Shiman said. "While a lot of people are making some kind of attempt to lower carbs in their daily eating, we've even seen a decline in that percentage. In April, almost a third [32%] said they were making an attempt to restrict carbs, while more recent studies show the figure to be 21% and 23%."
Even more important are ODC findings that confirm people don't look at all foods that contain carbohydrates in the same way -- and they've often been misled by the consumer media's comments that aren't always based on scientific research, Shiman said.
It's that information gap that the Potato Board decided to tackle early this year with its "Healthy Potato" campaign, designed to put spuds back on the table.
"Our approach has been very positive, pointing out we're a good carb. There are no negatives directed toward the [low-carb] diets. We're talking about 'one medium potato a day, keeps you in a healthy way,' and then pointing out it has only 100 calories, no fat, three grams of fiber, and is a good source of potassium and vitamin C," McCashion said. The image used in the promotional and educational materials utilizes the standard, U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved nutrition information panel with arrows pointing toward the calorie, fiber, potassium and vitamin C content of the potato. The panel is super-imposed on a color photo of a potato.
"This works especially well in stores. We tested it in selected supermarkets and found that potato sales went up a minimum of 10% in each one. Signs that are fairly large, maybe two feet by two or three, are used at point of sale. All the nutrition information is on the back of the potato bag, but consumers hadn't turned the bag over to read it. They obviously noticed the signs though," McCashion said, adding that participating stores achieved quick sales hikes.
At about the same time the Healthy Potato ads broke in consumer magazines, the New York Times published an article on the campaign. Other news media picked up on the story, and the combined coverage has helped sales momentum, McCashion said.
When low-carb dieting was all the rage a few months ago, McDonald's was in the news a lot. The quick-service restaurant chain grabbed the opportunity to tell its positive stories, Blanchard-Smith said. She pointed out that McDonald's has a long history of listening -- and responding to -- customers.
"We were the first restaurant company -- in 1973 -- to offer nutrition information to our customers. Since then, we've added salads and 1% milk. And last year, we introduced our signature salads, which are now in our top 10 selling items."
She also noted the company's global Internet site, McDonald's.com, offers simple steps to controlling carbs and to boosting activity level, and a "bag a meal" link where consumers can put different McDonald's menu items together and total up their nutrients.
"Balance and choice are the keys," Blanchard-Smith said. "Talking about those and other things we're doing gave us an opportunity to get away from all the negativity. It's really less about reacting to the [consumer] media and more about listening to customers and giving them what they want. They've let us know they want more fresh fruits. So next spring, we'll introduce a fruit-and-walnut salad, and more Happy Meal choices.
Porter-Novelli's Christ-Erwin, who also moderated the discussion, pointed out that the media needs direction and solid, research-based information.
"We [in the food industry] need to feed them that information and emphasize the positives, like the need to take advantage of fiber content and omega-3 [fatty acids], and talk more about eating in moderation," she said. "There's a lot to say about health and nutrition, and we need to think about how to say it, how it will resonate with the audience we want to reach."
Christ-Erwin cited statistics Shiman listed earlier that show the low-carb craze may be waning, but also pointed to recent statistics on obesity and childhood diseases related to eating patterns.
"I think the low-carb diet provides a huge opportunity for us to show people how they should eat. Whatever happens with the low-carb diets, if they fade out or not, one fact remains. This whole thing has fundamentally changed the way we look at food."
The experts were part of a panel at the Produce Marketing Association's International Convention & Exposition here.