Unilever has responded to the intense popularity of the low- carbohydrate Atkins diet by launching a range of healthy diet foods that appears to compete with the Anglo-Dutch group’s own SlimFast range. Unilever’s Carb Options is a line of 18 products including sauces, marinades, salad dressings, peanut spreads and shakes that have been launched under existing brand names such as Ragu, Wish- Bone, Skippy, Lipton and Lawry’s.
The launch of the “low-carb” brand extensions in the US – the biggest market for diet programmes – follows the announcement in October with the company’s third-quarter results that SlimFast sales had dropped nearly 30 per cent because of pressure from Atkins, which encourages people to cut carbohydrate intake.
It reflects the concerns by some multinational food and drink conglomerates that health concerns will eat into profits.
PepsiCo and Kraft have taken steps to remove fats from snacks while Nestle and Unilever already spend heavily on research and development costs aimed at changing formulations and developing healthy diet foods products.
The low-carbohydrate enthusiasm was also underlined in this week’s trading statement by SABMiller. The global brewer said sales in the US improved after it accentuated the low-carbohydrate aspects of its Miller Lite beer.
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SlimFast, a Florida-based group bought in 2000 for Dollars 2.3bn (Pounds 1.4bn), generates Euros 1bn (Pounds 690m) of sales a year, or 2 per cent of the conglomerate’s Euros 50bn turnover.
Unilever’s US business represents about a quarter of its total turnover and SlimFast’s decline contributed to the second reduction in company forecasts within four months. The company said it had reacted this week to a trend that showed no sign of fading. “We know at least 30m people who are living the low-carb lifestyle and that number is expected to double in the next year,” said Lisa Klauser, vice-president of Integrated Marketing for Unilever Bestfoods. “This shift in America’s eating habits is unprecedented. With the launch of Carb Options, we are answering the carb-counters call.”
The company added that it would look at the results of the new line before expanding into other markets. It is estimated that the total US market for low-carb products in 2005 will be Dollars 1bn.