... although SnackWell's are in demand by consumers who will go for lower-fat item with taste. CONSUMERS OVERCOME THEIR FOOD GUILT RESEARCH SHOWS BEEF, BUTTER, FAT SLIPPING BACK INTO AMERICANS DIETS

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After a decade of deprivation, U.S. consumers are enjoying a good binge.

Consumers have spent the past 10 years or so nibbling on all sorts of light, low-fat, reduced fat and fat-free foods. But lately, more seductive buzzwords are slipping back onto grocery packages.

Juicy, chunky, full-flavor, superpremium-these are the selling points of today.

And marketers are taking their cues from consumers, who seem to have had enough of clean living.

Indulgence is showing up everywhere. Retail sales of beef for the last quarter of 1993 jumped 7% compared with the same quarter of 1992, and traffic at casual steakhouses surged 19% this past year, according to Beef Industry Council of America.

National Dairy Promotion & Research Board reports sales of premium and superpremium ice creams were up 8% last year, while butter sales have rebounded to the levels of 30 years ago, jumping 10.4% in 1993.

Meanwhile, sales of diet sodas are down slightly-to a 28.2% share of the overall soft drink business in 1993, down from a 29.5% share in 1990-while the Specialty Coffee Association says consumption of caffeinated specialty coffees is on the rise.

Research by NPD Group, a market researcher, shows consumers' concerns about serving food with fat are stabilizing, with 49% saying they're very cautious about serving such foods, compared with 51% in 1990.

Nutritional concerns about cholesterol, salt, preservatives, sugar, caffeine and additives have fallen sharply since 1990, the height of America's healthy foods craze, the NPD study shows.

It's not that Americans are kicking the health habit. They're tired of compromising on taste.

"Low-fat, reduced-fat and fat-free claims have become so prevalent that consumers are starting to take them for granted," says Steve Phelan, VP of AcuPoll Precision Research, a company that tests product introductions.

So if fat-free isn't new and different, what is?

"Probably full-flavor versions, that unashamedly tout their deliciousness," Mr. Phelan says. "And because these products are being dropped into an atmosphere thick with fat-free claims, they become new and different, even though they may actually be old and traditional-style recipes."

Perhaps one of the first marketers to capitalize on Americans' pent-up craving for sinfully delicious foods was Grand Met USA's Haagen-Dazs Co., when it introduced its Extraas line of superpremium ice cream in mid-1992, says Tom Vierhile, executive editor for Marketing Intelligence Service, a company that tracks new products.

The introduction of Extraas resulted in record 1993 sales for the brand, with Haagen-Dazs capturing an 8.3% share of the overall ice cream market and a 61% share of the superpremium market, says Haagen-Dazs spokesman Dave Gilman.

Extraas packs 22 grams of fat and 330 calories into a 4-ounce serving.

The marketer is rolling out two new Extraas pint flavors to join its existing five-Brownies A La Mode and Strawberry Cheesecake-and two new Extraas stick bars, Caramel Cone Explosion and Iced Cappuccino.

These will be supported by a national TV ad campaign that's set to break before the summer ice cream season via BBDO Worldwide, New York, bringing the brand back to TV after a hiatus of several years.

Regional marketers have followed Haagen-Dazs' lead. H.B. Hood Inc., Boston, launched Hood Select superpremium ice cream at the end of last year and Hagan Ice Cream of Union Town, Pa., launched Isaac Newton Superpremium ice cream in February.

Other introductions seeming to buck the low-fat, healthy foods trend include Oscar Mayer Foods Corp.'s Big & Juicy hot dogs, launched last August, and Keebler Co.'s Chocolate Lovers Chips Deluxe, out this year, Mr. Vierhile says.

This by no means indicates marketers have abandoned their low-fat products. But they're aware that taste keeps consumers coming back.

Witness the success of Nabisco's SnackWell's line of reduced-fat cookies. Demand for the devil's food cookie cake variety was so great last spring the marketer ran network TV spots apologizing for its inability to keep them on store shelves.

"We're coming to a curious point in our perspective on these kinds of products," says Steven Galbraith, a research analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

"On the one level, there's a real backlash against so-called healthy products. Weight Watchers is getting slaughtered, Healthy Choice isn't doing as well as it was, and frozen yogurt isn't growing like it did two or three years ago. Even dogs aren't eating diet pet food," he says.

"On the other hand, SnackWell's has been a real boon to Nabisco. Those healthy products that don't compromise on taste-that's the key-seem to do best."

Even Haagen-Dazs is hedging its bets. The marketer also offers a full line of frozen desserts, including those that are 99% fat-free.

Emily DeNitto contributed to this story.

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