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Peanut butter is getting a slim new profile.

In an effort to turn around one of the fastest-declining categories on grocery shelves, at least two major marketers are introducing reduced-fat versions of their peanut butters.

Best Foods' Skippy Reduced Fat and Peter Pan Smart Choice from Con Agra's Hunt-Wesson are rolling out nationally, backed by the first major ad dollars either brand has seen in at least a year.

Other brands, including Procter & Gamble Co.'s No. 1 ranked Jif, are expected to follow suit once a peanut industry challenge to the products is resolved.

"If the new reduced-fat products are successful-and there's good reason to believe they will be-they could create a requirement that every brand have a lower-fat version," said Anita Hersh, president-chief operating officer of Lister Butler, a New York consultancy.

But the emerging segment is meeting resistance from the Peanut Advisory Board, a trade group representing growers, and several marketers, which have requested the Food & Drug Administration to disallow use of the term peanut butter for the reduced-fat products. They argue the items, which use about 30% fewer peanuts than traditional brands, should be called "peanut spreads."

The FDA, however, has already argued in favor of allowing the term and is expected to rule for the new products' labeling when it makes a final decision sometime next month.

The peanut butter category dropped more than 13% in dollars and more than 10% in volume for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 2.

Market experts have blamed peanut price fluctuations, price wars and private-label inroads but, as the new products suggest, health concerns could be the most important factor of all.

"There's a clear precedent for consumers paying more for products like this," said Steve Galbraith, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "I'm a notorious trasher of specious new products. But [reduced-fat peanut butters] are good stuff, not unlike Nabisco's SnackWell's line of no-fat cookies. They're product extensions that meet a real need."

The new products substitute soy proteins and sugars for high-fat peanuts. Pricing is equivalent to traditional brands.

Competitive marketers, including P&G, Hershey Foods Corp. and J.M. Smucker Co., declined to comment on their plans for the reduced-fat market, but some argue that the entire category will be helped by the latest entries.

"This should give the whole category a shot in the arm," said Julie Poduch, director of marketing for Adams peanut butter from Nallie's Fine Foods, a unit of Curtis-Burns Foods. "We haven't advertised in years-most brands haven't-and there will be lots of advertising and couponing for the new products. There should be a lot of attention and consumer awareness."

For the first six months of 1993, only Jif received ad support, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

"There's been a lot of push into retail with money, but not a lot of consumer pull with advertising," Mr. Galbraith said. "Retailers will require their pound of flesh, but you have to make shoppers want the products as well."

Best Foods, a unit of CPC International, plans "a well-integrated program" of promotions and advertising for Skippy Reduced Fat, a spokeswoman said. The estimated $12 million campaign via BBDO Worldwide, New York, includes a spot that will start airing on network TV later this month.

Hunt-Wesson will spend an estimated $10 million on two TV spots breaking this month for Peter Pan Smart Choice via Ketchum Advertising, San Francisco.

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