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America has taken a decided turn toward healthier eating, with the hottest brands promoting some type of low-fat, fat-free or calorie-free position.

Virtually all of the 10 hottest categories in supermarkets, as ranked by Nielsen's ScanTrack for the 52-week period ending Sept. 10, 1994, are linked by the overwhelming perception that these foods are somehow healthy. Ready-to-eat salads, pretzels, granola/yogurt bars, bottled waters and liquid teas each contain a "healthy" marketing hook, whether it's low-fat such as pretzels, or calories-free still/sparkling waters.

"What we're seeing is the effect of the new labeling regulations, which really make it clear how much fat and how many calories are in our foods," says John Ruf, retail specialist and principal of consultancy New England Consulting Group. "At the same time, we've become more conscious about the fat-that the right way to eat is a low-fat diet. And that's reflected in the brand choices we're making, whether it's ready-to-eat salads, waters or pretzels."

In that light, it's not all that surprising pretzels, which are enjoying a reputation as a healthy snack alternative to potato chips and other higher-fat salty snacks, saw sales increase 20.3% to $543 million.

Led by Frito-Lay's Rold Gold "pretzel boy," Jason Alexander, advertising in the category doesn't even have to mention low-fat/no-fat, no-cholesterol properties to attract health-conscious consumers.

The decided shift to low-fat snacks convinced Frito-Lay to invest $225 million in introductions of more reduced-fat products, including Ruffles Reduced Fat chips, Baked Lays potato crisps and Baked Tostitos.

The same is true for granola bars. Whether they're called granola bars, energy bars, nutrition bars or sports bars, the bar category has undergone significant change in the past year, from the reality of being high-fat, high-calories candy-bar-like snacks to being low-fat, reduced calories, "healthier" varieties.

More than 20 new items have been introduced, including Nutri-Grain and Low Fat Granola bars from Kellogg Co., which also is about to introduce Rice Krispies Treats marshmallow squares and Pop-Tarts Minis. The snacks will be sold in vending machines.

Also, General Mills' Nature Valley, which created the category in the late 1970s, has two new low-fat granola bars, Triple Berry and Orchard Blend; there are seven reduced-fat and uncoated Kudos bars from Mars Inc. Even Nabisco introduced fat-free cereal bars under its SnackWell's moniker.

Granola and yogurt bars posted the largest category volume growth since 1985-$451 million, a 17.1% gain from the previous year, Nielsen reports.

"The category is making a big comeback with low-fat/reduced-fat bars," says Peter Cosgrove, VP-sales and marketing, Nellson Candies, a marketer of contract and private-label nutrition bars. "It's in line with what's happening in every major category in the supermarket, where there's a no-fat/low-fat alternative to virtually every product."

Competition also is fierce in the $5 billion fruit juice, juice drink, tea and water categories, driven by consumers voting with their palates in favor of new beverage combinations they perceive as healthier than carbonated beverages.

Increasingly, consumers are prone to experiment with new noncarbonated juice and juice-drink flavors, notes Tom Pirko, president of consultancy BevMark.

"Consumers are very restive; they're looking to have their taste impressions expanded," he says. "At the same time, we're seeing a deep-seated desire on the part of young people to take classic beverages, like coffee, tea and water and turn them into something entirely new, like cappuccino, Snapple fruit-flavored iced tea and sparkling water."

According to Nielsen, the liquid tea category grew a phenomenal 77.2% to $354.6 million, led by Snapple, Lipton and Nestea. Bottled water rose 16.4% to $746.5 million as consumers remain concerned about the purity of municipal water supplies.

"The key with bottled water, too, is lifestyle," adds Mr. Pirko. "There's so much positive association with water that there's sure to be increased brand activity and advertising associated with bottled waters."

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