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The low-fat phenomenon is about to put the bite on the $1.4 billion tortilla chip segment.

This summer, Frito-Lay is introducing nationally Baked Tostitos, a product with 1 gram of fat per serving compared with the usual 8 grams.

The giant salty-snack marketer plans to make its low-fat line extension into a $100 million brand within several years as more consumers seek healthier snack alternatives like pretzels. Frito-Lay has been testing the low-fat product primarily on the West Coast since June 1993. The national rollout is proceeding as product is available.

Baked Tostitos will take direct aim on Guiltless Gourmet, the Austin, Texas-based company that quietly pioneered the low-fat tortilla chip segment. With $21.1 million in sales for the 52 weeks ended April 9, Guiltless Gourmet ranks No. 8 in the total tortilla chip lineup, up from No. 12 in the year-ago period, according to Nielsen Marketing Research. It has taken just four years to place in the top 10 with little marketing support.

Guiltless Gourmet professes not to be worried about Frito-Lay's entry.

"Guiltless Gourmet certainly will be prepared," said Mark Greene, director of merchandising. "There will be a clear and direct ad effort that will attempt to follow Frito's big money in."

Guiltless Gourmet is gearing up for its first major consumer marketing effort later this year. The Richards Group, Dallas, handles.

Meanwhile, Frito-Lay plans to put "a lot of advertising" behind Baked Tostitos, said Roger Berdusco, VP-tortilla chips.

"This is the right product at the right time because consumers are concerned about nutrition," he said. "We can't make enough of it to keep up with demand."

Baked Tostitos, available in unsalted, original and cool ranch versions, in early fall will be supported by a 30-second network TV spot from BBDO Worldwide, New York. The commercial will feature comedian Chris Elliott, who made his debut in a new regular Tostitos campaign in April.

Using the brand's "Prepare to party" theme, the spot tries to show the unbelievably great taste of Baked Tostitos.

Frito-Lay relied on consumer promotions linked to the company's salsa dips to generate trial in June. With the purchase of two bags of Tostitos came a free jar of salsa.

"What Frito really competes on is taste," said Tod MacKenzie, VP-advertising and public affairs. "We've found a variety of products out there, but from consumer research, very few are delivering on the taste side of the equation. We think Baked Tostitos' taste is a significant point of difference."

Manny Goldman, analyst at PaineWebber, San Francisco, believes the success of the baked tortilla chip segment-accounting for slightly more than $36 million, or 2.6%, of the total-will hinge on taste even though consumers want to decrease their fat intake.

"Taste counts," he said. "Consumers have such high expectations, and salty snacks typically taste wonderful. Anything less than wonderful becomes suspect."

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