Critics Can't Stomach Mars' Healthful Play

Watchdogs Call Nutrition Push 'Deceptive'

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Two titans often portrayed as villains in the war against childhood obesity-Mars and Wal-Mart-are out to show they're good guys by introducing a line of nutrient-fortified kids' snacks promoted as "jam-packed with good stuff." But they aren't satisfying nutrition watchdogs, who are slamming the pretzel, cookie and cracker products, dubbed Kid-Didits, even as they hit the shelves.

"As an alternative to potato chips and Snickers bars, these snacks might be more reasonable, but to position them as truly healthful is misleading," said Margo Wootan, director-nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The public is always happy to hear they can eat junk food without the consequences ... so a little bit of deceptive marketing goes a long way."

The mission of Kid-Didits, targeted to 6- to 11-year-olds and initially available only at Wal-Mart, is to "motivate kids to discover the importance of good nutrition in their lives and empower them to make healthful choices on their own," according to kiddidits.com. The site offers teaching tools, including lesson plans about nutrients and food-pyramid charts for classrooms. It also offers kids the chance to post their photos and tales of achievement, some of which will grace the front of the brand's packaging.

Ellen Briggs, food consultant and author of "Are Your Kids Running on Empty?" notes that while Kid-Didits are a step in the right direction, with 100-calorie portions and a lack of artificial ingredients and trans fats, they are still heavily processed and derive more than 60% of their calories from a sugar source. She also said the added vitamins and nutrients will not be as well-absorbed by the body as vitamins that naturally occur in foods.

Steven Addis, president of brand consultancy Addis Creson, called Kid-Didits an example of "greenwashing," an attempt by food companies to paint junk food in a more positive light. He applauds Mars for heading down a more healthful path, but said, "It's a baby step, and as parents become more savvy about reading nutritional labels, they won't be too impressed by this."

unfamiliar territory

Mars, which is marketing the product out of its nutrition division, hopes to prove him and other critics wrong. With its six-item line of Kid-Didits cheese snacks, pretzels and cookies, it's leaping into largely unfamiliar territory dominated by heavy hitters Pepsi's Frito-Lay and Kraft's Nabisco. Mars' existing noncandy snacks have not fared well. Sales for its Combos brand in food, drug and mass merchandisers excluding Wal-Mart dropped more than 14% last year to $22 million, and its Kudos granola-bar sales fell 18% to $26 million, according to Information Resources Inc.

The inability to strike a balance between products both kids and critics can stomach has plagued food marketers trying to develop more-healthful fare. According to Packaged Facts' 2006 Snack Food Sales study, the move toward such products is the biggest trend in the $61 billion snack category. Less-healthful segments, such as cookies and crackers, have suffered from the fervor over increased nutrition as marketers struggle to crack the code on tasty, healthful snacks.

the right target

Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor and author of "Brand Simple," believes the empowerment piece of Kid-Didits' positioning shows Mars understands that "the answer lies in getting kids to want to eat healthier snacks." He said Kid-Didits "feel fun and cool for kids and don't say 'healthy' directly, which by default implies it tastes terrible."

Scott Lucas, VP-packaging for Interbrand, said the choice Mars made to address kids rather than moms is a trend with marketers, as is the kid-empowerment idea. "Brands that can get consumers to be advocates gain more legitimacy," he said.

Mars spokeswoman Marlene Machut said the Kid-Didits line is "a step in the right direction." Kids should eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, "but these are snacks and, together with a healthy diet, they would complement any deficiencies kids have in the way they eat today." Kid-Didits, she said, taste good and meet most nutrition standards set in schools, which "is not that easy to do."

Mars will give out more than 3 million samples of Kid-Didits during the next five months, focusing on events in the 10 markets where it will initially be sold that tie in to its achievement and aspiration themes. Although it will not advertise the line during the initial test, Mars will use 15-year-old actress Amy Bruckner, star of Disney's "Phil of the Future," in public-relations efforts. The promotion agency is BFG Communications, Hilton Head, S.C.
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