The company is reformulating Chef Boyardee's Mini-Bites, small-size pasta crafted with younger mouths in mind, with all-natural ingredients and lower sodium. The earlier version contained more than 42% of the recommended daily value of sodium per cup.
A ConAgra spokeswoman professed no knowledge of a sodium reduction for Mini-Bites, saying only: "We are constantly looking at ways to reduce sodium across our portfolio." But sales materials distributed to retailers tout the reduction.
Even before the product hits the shelves, it's being cited by critics as a superficial effort. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University and author of "What to Eat," suggested that the nutritional improvements to Chef Boyardee, a food she categorizes as "junk," is part of a much bigger trend for food companies to "make marginal improvements that won't affect sales or might even improve them, some [claim] they can put on the box to draw in moms." That trend, she said, is "about competition, not about health."
Chef Boyardee's $327 million sales are flat, according to Information Resources Inc., for the 52 weeks ended March 25. (The Mini-Bites line made up $27 million of the Chef Boyardee total.) The leading better-for-you player in the segment is Annie's Homegrown, which has a calorie count nearly half of Chef Boyardee and features a lower 30% required daily amount of sodium per serving. Annie' sales, however, are only $2.3 million.
ConAgra plans to pitch the reformulated brand with newspaper inserts and in-store coupons, among other efforts, to reach families with kids. The brand is handled by Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett, Chicago.
Caution is advised
Despite the charge that marketers are fueling the kids' obesity epidemic, Lehman Bros. analyst Andrew Lazar said that "for brands like Chef Boyardee, where a lot of consumption comes from younger children, the economics suggest they should continue to deliver those products, just in a more nutritious way." The problem, however, it that "you have to be careful how you do it." Mr. Lazar pointed to General Mills' failed efforts to introduce a low-sugar cereal sweetened with Splenda (which many parents questioned the use of) and Kraft's issues over the years trying to tweak Lunchables in a manner that would be palatable to children.
Steve Gundrum, president-CEO of product-developer Mattson, said, "If lowering sodium has a negative impact on the flavor, ConAgra will lose users." Kids "don't rationalize what they eat for nutrition's sake, they vote with their senses."
The topic of high sodium levels in kids' foods, though not linked directly to obesity, is coming up more often among nutritionists. Gail Woodward-Lopez, associate director for the Center for Weight & Health at University of California at Berkeley, noted that it helps to get kids accustomed to lower sodium products to develop more-healthful preferences early on. She applauded ConAgra's effort ("you can get a lot worse than canned pasta") but said her guidelines for preventing obesity include consumption of carbohydrates that are high in fiber or made from whole grains (Chef Boyardee products are not).