To Your Health!
By Lynn Petrak
Trends come and go, but consumers still seek products that fit a healthy lifestyle.
Pick up a newspaper, tune into the television news or surf the Internet headlines on any given day, and you’re likely to find at least one story related to healthy eating. From the low-carb craze to studies showing that milk intake aids weight loss, food and wellness are never far from the public discourse.
It’s been that way for the better part of 20 years. For meat and poultry products, the dietary pendulum has swung back and forth, from the 1980s and ‘90s — when various meats were singled out for high fat, calorie, and cholesterol contents — to the early part of this decade, when protein-rich diets became the stuff of bestsellers and a spate of new products.
Mixed bag
Some particular proteins like chicken breasts, ground turkey, beef eye round, and pork tenderloin have fared well through the ongoing debate about food and wellness. Others, with higher fat and calorie profiles, have been added to the “do not eat” list in many eating plans. That fact has kept industry groups, processors, and retailers busy educating the public about meat’s role in the diet and offering leaner products via different production practices and closer trimming methods.
Although there have been many misperceptions about the role of meat and poultry in the diet and good food/bad myths continue to circulate, progress has been made in consumers’ understanding of what truly constitutes healthy eating, say some observers.
“I think that we are seeing consumers that are a bit more aware and knowledgeable because they have been educated somewhat,” says Karen Boillot, director of retail marketing for the National Pork Board (NPB), Des Moines, IA.
Mary K. Young, M.S., R.D., executive director of nutrition for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), Centennial, CO, agrees. “Today’s consumer is trying to achieve ‘balance’ in their diet much more than in the past. The past was driven by the need to avoid perceived ‘bad’ food or ingredients like fat, cholesterol, sugar, and salt. Consumers now see a healthy meal or diet as one that includes a variety of foods from all of the food groups rather than the elimination of favorite foods,” she says.
Recent statistics bear out the notion of a more educated health-oriented consumer. A joint report released in November by the Washington, DC-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Prevention magazine shows that 34 percent of shoppers believe they have a healthful diet and 55 percent say they are trying “a lot” to eat more healthfully. As for specific products, 46 percent want their store to offer a greater quantity of nutritious prepared foods, 40 percent want more low-fat foods, and 39 percent want more low-carb choices.
“This country’s obesity crisis has alerted shoppers that they need to take control of their health by taking charge of their diets,” Anne-Marie Roerink, FMI director of research, said in a statement. “In addition, they are increasingly looking to their local supermarkets and other food retailers for effective, long-range solutions.”
Another survey published in Parade magazine in November, called “What America Eats,” confirms the role health plays in food choices. In that study, 45 percent of respondents said they have reduced portion sizes in the past year, while 40 percent are eating low-fat foods, and 31 percent are reducing total calories.
Education seems to be translating into action at the retail level. “The good news is that consumers are trending towards choosing leaner cuts of beef in the meat case,” notes Young. “Sixty-eight percent of all muscle cuts sold at retail and seventeen of the top twenty most popular whole-muscle cuts meet government guidelines for lean, so they have many choices in the lean beef category.”
What’s better now
Although consumers seem to be more knowledgeable about healthy eating and are purchasing leaner meats, eating fads do impact this category. Case in point: the low-carb craze inspired by the Atkins, South Beach, and Zone diets that have garnered headlines and spurred a host of products over the past few years.
According to a survey sponsored by the Washington, DC-based National Chicken Council (NCC) and U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, 19 percent of adults said that the trend has had “quite a bit” or “some” impact on the way they eat. Last fall’s Parade survey, meanwhile, found that in the last two years, 39 percent of Americans tried the Atkins diet, and 12 percent attempted the South Beach diet.
While it has not boded well for the potato, pasta, and bread industries, the popularity of low-carb eating plans has had a positive impact for protein-rich foods like meat and poultry. Processors and industry groups have capitalized on the trend and helped retailers position products in the meat case as an ideal part of low-carb diets.
To that end, many meat and poultry brands now feature packages with labels reading “protein rich” or “low carb.” Several prepared and frozen-food manufacturers have developed products especially for the low-carb marketplace, while meat-snack manufacturers have taken advantage of the trend. Kent, WA-based Oberto Sausage Co., for example, recently launched such a new line  — Edge low-carb beef snacks.
Ramping up merchandising
In addition to product development and packaging, merchandising efforts centered on low-carb themes have also been ramped up recently. Various meat processors and industry groups have supplied retailers with point-of-sale signage and materials testifying to the low-carb profile of various meat and poultry items, and have funded larger-scale advertising campaigns with similar messages.
The National Turkey Federation (NTF), for example, launched a new advertising and promotional campaign with a low-carb message last summer. Featuring the tagline, “Turkey: The Perfect Protein,” the effort included colorful print ads in major magazines along with other components at the retail level. Sherrie Rosenblatt, senior director of marketing and communications, says consumers embraced the campaign’s core theme. “We have gotten research results back which show that consumers had seen and known about the ‘perfect protein’ message. It was news to them that turkey has eight percent more protein than beef or chicken and they liked knowing it has lower saturated fat,” she adds.
The National Chicken Council (NCC) has also incorporated low-carb messages into its retail promotional programs. The group’s materials for National Chicken Month in September, including shelf talkers, rail strips, posters and other POS items, reminded consumers that chicken is low in fat and carbohydrates.
The National Pork Board has invested in low-carb promotions as well. “The low-carb trend and emphasis on meat and protein in the diet is a good thing for people who think they need to cut carbs,” says strategic marketing manager Becca Hendricks, adding that beyond industry-funded efforts, individual processing companies have also worked to promote the high protein content of lean pork.
As 2005 begins – and the media again focuses on healthy eating and weight loss in light of New Year’s resolutions — some food analysts have reported that the low-carb trend appears to have peaked. The NPD Group market research firm relays that 9 percent of all U.S. adults were on a low-carb diet last February, a figure that figure declined to 4.6 percent by September.
Despite that news, retailers can expect consumers to continue to be interested in proteins, including meat and poultry.
“Mostly due to low-carb diets, consumers have come to better understand that beef is a great tasting, nutrient-dense food that can be enjoyed as part of a well balanced diet,” says Mel Coleman Jr., chairman of Denver, CO-based Coleman Natural Meats.
Others agree that the changes in perceptions about meat and poultry are long-term, “Out of the low-carb trend, people are thinking more about protein and iron,” says Hendricks, adding that low-carb message will likely always be a component of pork industry-marketing efforts. Likewise, the Turkey Federation’s ads for 2005 will continue the protein theme in a more subtle ways, according to Rosenblatt.
Other segment drivers
In addition to clamor for low-carb products, consumers continue to seek meat and poultry products with a leaner, lower-fat profile. Leaner meat and poultry products and boneless, skinless cuts remain an important part of many meat cases for shoppers looking to lose weight or to following restricted diets for health reasons.
Most major manufacturers offer specialty products geared toward this audience, from a line of Fit ‘N Easy®  boneless, skinless poultry cuts from Salisbury, MD-based Perdue Farms to Lean Generation pork cuts from Smithfield, VA-based Smithfield Foods, to Light & Lean premium luncheon meats from Austin, MN-based Hormel Foods, among dozens of others.
Pilgrim’s Pride, Pittsburg, TX, has offered lean products for at least 20 years, and it continues to market boneless, skinless cuts of turkey and chicken for health-conscious buyers. In early 2005, in fact, packages of Pilgrim’s Pride products will carry the American Heart Association logo as a seal of approval.
The key to the success of a lean or low-fat product line, says  Pilgrim’s Pride vice president of marketing Dan Emery, is appetite appeal.
“Ultimately, it has to taste good — the consumer isn’t willing to give up taste for nutrition,” he says. “It’s also the versatility consumers are looking for. If you think about a boneless skinless breast, you can cook it in fifteen minutes.”
Coleman Natural Beef is another meat company that has offered lean-beef products for several years and has seen demand steadily rise. “We have prided ourselves in meeting retailer and consumer requests for specially cut and trimmed items,” says Coleman, citing the company’s full line of lean grinds, aged beef programs, and retail-ready cuts like vacuum packed half strip loins.
Meanwhile, there is a move afoot to emphasize the positive nutritional attributes of proteins. “We need to be looking at not just telling consumers, ‘This is a low-fat or low carb-option,’ but ‘Did you realize in addition to the protein content, zinc and iron are important?’” points out Boillot.
The beef industry has also worked to educate consumers about the nutrition punch packed by lean beef. “Beef is a naturally nutrient-rich powerhouse,” notes Young. “Beef’s leanest cuts have eight times more vitamin B12, six times more zinc and three times more iron than a skinless chicken breast.”
In addition to nutrient-rich foods, natural and organic options are also commanding attention among many consumers concerned about their health. “We believe that with changing lifestyles, greater awareness about the use of chemicals in food production, food-safety concerns, and the introduction of meat-friendly diets, consumers are more than ever embracing the practices we’ve had in place for nearly twenty-five years,” says Coleman, adding that more Americans are concerned about the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones.
As interest in healthier, natural, and organic meats expands, there continues to be buzz about vegetarian and vegan diets. The issue for meat merchandisers, Emery says, is about the demographics of meat-avoiding consumers. “I tend to worry about trend in veganism with young people —some estimates put that as high as ten to twelve percent,” he remarks. “It seems to be temporary and they grow out of it, but it is something to be concerned about.”
Still, although plant-based diets have garnered a lot of attention the past 10 to 20 years, especially among youths, such eating plans are not dominant and many health experts have sounded alarms about eschewing meat altogether. “The statistics on vegetarian diets remain flat,” relays Young, adding that those who adopt strict vegetarian diets are at risk for nutrient deficiencies.
Looking to the future
As for the future of health as a driver of meat and poultry sales, much of it may be driven by the Baby Boomer generation. “As the population continues to age, we will probably see more products that are either positioned as healthier or positioned as nutraceutical and functional,” says Boillot.
Emery agrees. “That’s the real key. We are going through a phase of the graying of America,” he says. “You’ll have a huge population over fifty-four and those who can tune into them and give them what they are looking for will be successful.”  NP