Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Food and beverage makers are slimming down their portion sizes and prominently displaying nutritional information on their packages as more obesity reports warn consumers against overconsumption.

Manufacturers such as Mars Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc. said they introduced smaller servings as a way to help Americans understand how much they eat in a given serving.

But smaller portions are not always a better value than the larger sizes.

Consumers often pay more for smaller packages of foods than those in bulkier proportions because of production and material costs, according to consumer staples analyst Erin Ashley Smith.

Most consumers tend to pay the higher price because of convenience, she said.

Hackettstown, N.J., candy maker Masterfoods USA, the U.S. food division of McLean-based Mars Inc., said last week that the company is phasing out its “king size” candy bars, with the transition taking place next year.

Mars spokeswoman Marlene Machut said the plan is to divide the large chocolate bars, such as Twix, Three Musketeers and Snickers, into pieces that encourage sharing or eating the bars over a longer period of time.

She would not say whether the price of the new candy bars would increase or decrease.

Currently, a king-size Snickers bar weighs 3.7 ounces and contains 510 calories. A large Milky Way comes in at 3.63 ounces for a 450 total-calorie count.

“All of the details aren’t sorted out yet,” Ms. Machut said, adding that the change could mean dividing the large portion or cutting it down in size. “But these bars will definitely be in multiple pieces,” she said.

Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Confectioners Association, said that candy companies have long capitalized on “snack-size” or “bite-size” candies that are individually wrapped.

“I think for the last few years the emphasis on candy has been its role as a snack,” Ms. Smith said, thus candy companies have come out with re-sealable containers and breakable pieces for smaller snacks or spread-out snacking.

The new candy bars come after Kraft, the maker of Oreo cookies and Wheat Thins, in July began selling 100-calorie packages of five of its snack foods. The 4.44-ounce to 9-ounce boxes, which contain six, 100-calorie packages, sell for $2.79 and have zero to 3 grams of fat per package.

Meanwhile, a regular 1-pound, 2- ounce pack of Oreos costs $3.99.

Spokeswoman Kris Charles said the product line reflects Kraft’s health and wellness campaign announced last summer. Initiatives included offering products with little or no trans fat, selling smaller portions for single-serving-size packages, and banning marketing inside schools.

While the snacks are touted as foods to be eaten in moderation, the large calorie-count labels on the front of the boxes help consumers quickly figure out how much they are eating, Mrs. Charles said.

Smaller portions are the newest focus in the food industry’s quest for convenient, ready-to-eat foods, said analyst Miss Smith of Argus Research Co., a New York research firm.

“But there is a limit for small-portion sizes. People aren’t going to buy a small bag of chips if they get maybe three or four chips. They’ll buy a bigger bag and try to moderate their snacking,” she said.

Still, food and beverage companies have jumped on the small-serving bandwagon.

Good Humor-Breyers Ice Cream sells mini-ice-cream pops. Coca-Cola sells 12-ounce and 10-ounce bottles, while Pepsico. Inc. sells 8-ounce cans and 10-ounce bottles for people with less thirst.

Coca-Cola’s six-pack of 10-ounce bottles costs $3.49, while the price of the regular six-pack of 24-ounce bottles is $4.99. Pepsi’s 10-ounce bottles are $2.99 for a six-pack, while its six-pack of 24-ounce bottles costs $3.99.

Even restaurants have taken note.

Quiznos Sub restaurants offer 16-ounce sandwiches with 4.5-ounce minimelts for customers who want less.

McDonald’s Corp. earlier this year said it would phase out its supersize portions. The decision followed government pressure and attacks from health advocates and trial lawyers who sought to pin some of the obesity blame on the fast-food chain.

The hamburger giant also offers smaller sizes of its popular items, such as small french fries and side salads, on its $1 menu.

A recent report by the Institute of Medicine, commissioned by Congress, said the food industry should change its junk-food marketing techniques and develop healthier alternatives to help combat a “toxic environment” that makes it difficult for children and adults to lose weight.

Restaurant-industry spokes-man Brad Dayspring said restaurants are seeing and responding to a change in eating habits. Seventy-five percent of restaurant patrons customize their orders, said Mr. Dayspring, with the National Restaurant Association trade group.

But that does not mean all restaurants automatically will start dropping their large and extra-large portions.

“In general, restaurants might choose in their own individual way to respond to the obesity problem, whether it be by using smaller portions or giving nutritional information,” he said.

While more food marketing is focusing on portion sizes and health benefits, dietitian Lisa Katic doubts the trend would deluge the food industry. “I think this will be on a case-by-case basis,” said Ms. Katic, a nutrition adviser to the Snack Food Association, an Alexandria trade group.

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