- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2015

It’s the world’s top-selling cookie, but even the mighty Oreo is not immune to the forces of political and dietary correctness.

The iconic chocolate sandwich cookie is going on a diet in what is yet another attempt by food manufacturers to diversify snacking options and win back what one Oreo executive diplomatically called “lapsed users.”

The makers of Oreo, which bring in more than $3 billion in global sales annually, on Monday unveiled “Oreo Thins,” a slimmed-down variation of the dunkable original that have less cream filling and seven fewer calories per cookie. These thinner options will hit store shelves early next week with a more “sophisticated” look in classic, mint and “golden” flavors.

Oreo is the latest snack producer to jump on the thin-branding bandwagon already crowded with other major food manufacturers who are selling trimmed-down alternatives to the original classic. With Ritz’s Crisp & Thins, Triscuit’s Thin Crisps and Kraft’s Wheat Thins, analysts don’t see the slim product trend slowing down anytime soon.

Mondelez International, Oreo’s Deerfield, Illinois-based parent company, hopes the move will broaden the product’s appeal to a more “mature” demographic worried about broadening waistlines and thickening thighs. Traditionally, Oreos have been advertised as the cookies that kids can “twist, lick and dunk” in their cups, but the new slim version aims to provide an alternative grown-up option.

“We know that some of our fans have grown up and that their tastes have grown up too,” said Patty Gonzalez, senior brand manager at Mondelez. “The crisp and delicate texture of Oreo Thins was specially designed for fans who love the taste of Oreo but are looking for a more sophisticated cookie.”

Despite the name, Oreo officials say they won’t be marketing the Thins as a “diet” version of the original, but Mondelez will be messing with a winning formula: “Classic” Oreo, first sold 103 years ago, is the world’s most popular cookie, outselling its closest rival by a more than 3-to-1 margin.

The move also evokes memories of disastrous efforts in the past to modernize a brand, notably the “New Coke” fiasco of 1985. Oreo’s makers are quick to note that, unlike Coca-Cola, they are not removing the popular original as they introduce a new variation.

Oreo Thins generated $40 million in the first eight months of sales in China last year, according to Janda Lukin, senior director of Oreo for North America. She said the slim option brought back “lapsed users” and helped reverse the country’s falling cookie sales. The success in China’s cookie market convinced marketers to bring the product to the U.S.

‘Thin’ is in

Oreo is not the first food company to rebrand itself amid a boom in the healthy eating market. Starbucks announced in May that it would offer a limited-time 10-ounce minifrappuccino, downsizing from its previous smallest drink size of 12 ounces.

Cracker brand Ritz announced in April the launch of the Ritz Crisp & Thin cracker snacks in the U.K. to meet what the company says are consumer demands for more savory eats. Triscuit, the Nabisco-made whole wheat cracker brand, is also in the market of slimmed products, with multiple different flavors of Triscuit Thin Crisps.

As food companies continue rebranding their products as thinner and often healthier versions of the originals, some food industry critics reject the notion that consumers actually want slimmer food and drink options.

“I’m not sure whether or not people really want all this healthy food, or whether or not Starbucks or these places are saying we should be doing this stuff because it’s the right thing to do,” said John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “People are still not eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Obesity is still an epidemic. Who are these people eating all these healthy foods?”

The Thins could help the company’s North American cookie business, which declined in the first three months of this year, according to The Associated Press. Ms. Lukin said that it took months for company bakers to get the right recipe for Oreo Thins. At first, she said, 60 percent of the cookies were breaking but that the rate eventually came down to 3 percent.

Mr. Stanton says healthy food marketing works in the short term because thin foods enable companies to provide less product and make more money, but he questions the long-term viability of the marketing strategies.

“Take McDonald’s, for example. McDonald’s sold salads. You really think they were selling salads because they thought their customers wanted salads?” Mr. Stanton said. “They sold salads to placate the constituencies that were saying they’re not selling healthy foods.”

As for the Oreo Thins, Mr. Stanton said that the overall brand is “such a good product that they could do anything and it would be successful.”

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

• Brennan Weiss can be reached at bweiss@washingtontimes.com.

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