Kraft query: Is good for kids bad for business?

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Kraft foods' latest ads candidly brag to moms about the steps taken to make the long-vilified Oscar Mayer Lunchables more healthful, but critics caution that touting still-minor tweaks could hinder rather than help in the fight against obesity.

The reformulation of Lunchables to cut calories, fat and sodium and add nutrients like calcium and protein has given Kraft a much-needed PR boost and won it praise even from the harshest critics. But the much-hyped "restage" only involves changes to five varieties out of its 41-strong product line that fit within its "Sensible Solution" nutrition guidelines. And those five varieties don't feature enough in the way of fruit, fiber and vegetables to mollify dietitians.

"Kids will be better off if they buy the improved Lunchables versus buying old Lunchables, but if parents and children now believe that Lunchables are more healthy and switch to the line from other better foods, it's possible overall diets could deteriorate," said Kelly Brownell, chair of the department of psychology at Yale University and director of Yale's Rudd Center for food policy and obesity.

Despite ongoing improvements to the Lunchables' nutritional panels, which have so far driven calorie counts down an average 10%, fat down 24%, saturated fat by 23% and sodium by 20%, American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Andrea Giancoli said the changes are "not going far enough to let me say it's a nutritious meal."

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for outspoken consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the changes finally convinced her to relent and let her daughter-who had pleaded for Lunchables for a year-to purchase the Chicken Dunks. But she presented it as a weekend meal treat (along with a piece of fruit) and not as a school lunch. "Kraft is taking a number of meaningful steps but they still have a lot of work to do," Ms. Wootan said.

`Lip service'

Mr. Brownell acknowledged that Kraft has been at the forefront of announcing nutrition changes to its products and changing its marketing practices to kids (a move he was disappointed to discover unmatched by competitors General Mills and Kellogg Co.), but he said that among the "countless examples" of products with supposed health benefits from Kraft and others, many are "simply lip service or even a distraction" to the real issues of nutrition.

Kraft discontinued its first attempt to create a more healthful lunch kit-the Lunchables Fun Fuels line that featured yogurt in place of candy among other healthy attributes-after kids failed to cotton to what they saw as not "real Lunchables."

From that experience, Kraft realized it needs to carefully walk the line between offering more healthful fare and making sure the product is "still fun and appealing for kids," said Nick Meriggioli, senior VP-general manager, Oscar Mayer.

Kraft recently launched 100% white meat chicken nugget kits, Chicken Dunks, which are touted in new ads as containing 20% of the recommended daily value of protein and 100% fruit juice (and importantly also contain the Starburst candy to keep kids interested).

Since introducing Chicken Dunks, Mr. Meriggioli said sales of Lunchables have improved. The overall line declined from $587 million in pre-obesity debate days of 2002 to $554 million in sales for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 7 this year, according to Information Resources Inc.

Two new Chicken Shake-Ups (which feature flavor packets kids can shake their chicken in) and reformulated Extra Cheesy and Pepperoni Flavored Sausage pizza varieties tell moms in print ads of their "surprising" nutritional benefits, like calcium. Kids under 12 are being targeted in a TV effort featuring the animated Lunchables Brigade. JWT, Chicago, handles.

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