As a nation the Brits are piling on the pounds - and nearly 30% of us are on a diet at any given time. This generates a huge potential for slimming foods, which around 7% of us claim to use. Catherine Sleep highlights some of the latest trends in the diet food market.

Almost 30% of the UK population is attempting to lose weight, with 4% seeking support from slimming clubs. New research released today [Friday 12 May 2001] by Mintel* reveals that consumers are increasingly looking to healthy foods to help them in their weight loss efforts, rather than simply cutting down on food intake. Another positive finding was that overweight consumers are increasingly realising the benefits of a multi-faceted approach to weight loss - combining a low calorie diet with exercise, for example.

Research highlights a growing sophistication in UK attitudes to health and the impact of food consumption on physical well-being. Nearly three quarters of UK adults are of the opinion that it is important to eat healthily, and interest is growing in cutting back on caffeine and red meat.

New products, not "reduced" versions

One of the key findings of the report was that the nature of the diet foods category is in flux. Once this category featured almost exclusively "reduced" versions of existing products, i.e. similar but low in sugar, or fat. As the category has evolved, however, more emphasis has been placed on developing products that stand alone as healthy food options. Supermarket shelves are sporting new "healthy eating" brands. This is a gradual change, and much of the category still consists of reduced fat versions of standard brands, but there is a growing trend towards products formulated from scratch to be low in calories and fat.

Indulgence in diet foods?

Research from any number of organisations over the last few years has flagged up the fact that consumers are seeking to indulge themselves with their food choices. While diet foods have boomed, so too have indulgence categories such as savoury snacks, confectionery and baked goods. This creates scope for new products which satisfy both requirements. One company which has successfully tapped into this development and is currently leading the sector is McVities, a division of United Biscuits, which launched the of reduced fat and reduced calorie products. What is really clever about the Go Ahead! range is that it manages to combine the apparently contradictory attractions of being both healthy and indulgent.

Manufacturers who can tap into consumers' desire to eat healthily while also meeting the requirement for gratification are well on their way to successful sales. This is exactly what Go Ahead! does, and it represents a key growth area for other manufacturers.

Own-label "good for you" lines

Where brand manufacturers have led, retailers have been quick to follow. Most of the major retailers in the UK have introduced own-label "good for you" lines. Marks & Spencer sells Count on US, while Sainsbury's has launched the Be Good to Yourself line to considerable success. While the jury is still out on exactly how much better these lines are than their standard own-label equivalents, they are certainly evidence of a demand for food that appears to be healthy. It is likely that the major grocery multiples will continue to expand their presence in the diet food and healthy food market.

Some of the trends evident in this area apply across much of the food sector in general. Reduced fat and reduced calorie foods are taking a growing share of most food segments. Among the fastest growing areas of penetration are convenience foods such as chilled ready meals. Mintel claims that this fits with increasingly busy lifestyles and rapidly disappearing cooking skills. In any case it is good news for the makers of diet foods as the convenience sector continues to boom. They are in the enviable position of commanding a  growing share of a blossoming market.

Health foods for men, children

So what is the future for diet foods? In such a young market, many segments of the reduced fat and reduced calorie food market are still in a growth phase. The research suggests that suppliers are beginning to target more healthy eating productsaway from the  traditional female base, with Go Ahead! targeting men with its confectionery and Sainsbury's introducing the concept of a healthy eating range for children.

Marketing food and drink to children is a minefield, but it presents huge opportunities for manufacturers of diet and health foods, as even parents who have very poor eating habits themselves are more inclined to feed their children products they perceive to be healthy.

*Reduced Fat and Reduced Calorie Foods, available from Mintel www.mintel.com