How Fruit and Veggie Marketers Are Making Produce Cool for Kids

Will Kids Eat Up Mickey Mouse Mangos and Olives to Go?

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Mickey Mouse mangos and Spider-Man strawberries?

Kid-friendly characters like the Marvel Comics webslinger and Mickey Mouse are increasingly popping up on fruits and veggies as part of a move by marketers to make healthier foods cool through packaging gimmicks and tie-ins with children's media properties such as Disney and Nickelodeon, which have been under pressure to sever ties with unhealthy candy and snack brands.

Olives to Go
Olives to Go

Sales of Disney-branded fruits and vegetables have tripled over the past year, with more than 3.1 billion servings sold in North America since 2006, Disney Consumer Products announced this week. The company declined to disclose the exact dollar amount, and broad statistics on kid-friendly produce sales are hard to come by. But there is growing anecdotal evidence that the tactic of marketing fruits and veggies like fun snacks is taking hold.

Disney's newest licensing deal is with Ventura, Calif.-based Freska Produce International, which next year will launch mangos in packaging branded with Disney characters. Meanwhile, retail chains like Target and Walmart are striking distribution deals on everything from olives packed in snack cups to freeze-dried fruit.

The notion of kid-targeted fruity snacks is as old as Fruit Roll-Ups, which debuted in 1983. But these days, more parents are seeking snacks that are "as close to the whole fruit or vegetable as possible," said Phil Lempert, a food-industry analyst. The demand for wholesome snacks comes as food marketers face pressure to stop advertising unhealthy foods to children. General Mills late last year agreed to remove images of strawberries from its strawberry-flavored Roll-Ups as part of a legal settlement with Center for Science in the Public Interest, which argued the company was "misleading consumers about the nutritional and health qualities of its fruit snacks."

Marketers are still finding ways to sweeten and spice up fruits and veggies. One of Disney's newest licensed products are Monsters University-branded "Flavorz," which are sliced apples infused with blue-raspberry flavor made by Washington-based Crunch Pak. Minnesota-based Reichel Foods has added new varieties to its "Dippin Stix" brand, including packs of celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins marketed as "Ants on a Log." Campbell Soup Co.-owned Bolthouse Farms -- whose tactics have included rebranding carrots as "Scarrots" -- is pushing a new product called "ShakeDowns," which are baby carrots accompanied with packs of chili lime and ranch seasoning.

Do marketers risk crossing the line into junk food territory? "That's a legitimate question," said Nancy Childs, a food-marketing professor at St. Joseph's University. "A lot of these products are going part way to lure the kid in," she said. "But you've still got a better choice" than traditional snacks.

Bothouse Farms ShakeDowns
Bothouse Farms ShakeDowns

Retailers can't seem to get enough of this new wave of healthier fruit and veggie snacks. California-based Musco Family Olive Co., which tested a "no-mess" snack pack of olives at Stop & Shop stores, expects to have national distribution by next year after striking deals with retailers including Walmart and Target. Packaging includes an image of a child's hand whose fingers are adorned with black olives. (CPG Innovation consultancy GameChanger assisted with the product development.)

Most of these veggie marketers don't have big ad budgets. Fishers, Ind.-based Funky Monkey Snacks, which makes freeze-dried snacks from real fruit, uses a small amount of print and radio, but mostly in-store marketing and event sampling. That hasn't stopped it from gaining national distribution at Walmart, however. The company also struck a licensing deal with Marvel for superhero branded items like "Ultimate Strawberries" featuring Spider-Man. The snacks avoid the complications of regular fruit, which can be sticky and messy and have spoilage issues, said Matt Herzog, president. Plus, he added, it has a "crunch that people love in a snack, especially kids."

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