Food marketers look to chronic disease to shape message

By J.M. Hirsch

(AP) – Overweight? Diabetic? Cholesterol out of control? Have we got a deal on a meal for you!

If that sales pitch sounds a little sick, that’s the point. Aging baby boomers and rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other health conditions have marketers looking to chronic illness as the new must-reach demographic.

It’s part of a cultural shift that increasingly sees health problems as lifestyles rather than diseases. Now the food industry is realizing those lifestyles can have a major influence on spending habits.

It’s easy to see why this is a fast-growing trend. For people like Karen Merrill, her lifestyle has become a matter of life and death.

The 49-year-old Barrington, N.H., woman had a heart attack and quintuple bypass in 2002. She credits the chronic disease-pitch _ which gives good-for-you branding to everything from menu items to entire supermarket shelves _ makes it easier for her to eat and shop.

During a recent trip to her local grocer, she was thrilled to spot several new whole-grain breakfast cereals _ foods she’s supposed to be eating more of _ displayed in a special “heart healthy” section of the cereal aisle.

“I never would have known that this cereal existed if it wasn’t for that display,” said Merrill. “By coupling things like that, it introduces me to new things. Normally I would have been heading to the health food store to get it.”

And there’s plenty of incentive for these efforts.

Americans with heart problems _ there are more than 70 million of them _ represent $71 billion in annual buying power. The nation’s nearly 21 million diabetics command around $14 billion. And don’t forget that about two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese.

People with chronic health conditions also are two to three times more likely than their healthy peers to follow special diets, making them prime targets for low-fat, low-sugar and other specialty foods, according to a report by IRI Healthcare, a Chicago-based marketing research firm that recently studied the disease-marketing trend.

There’s also a spillover effect.

“If Mom comes down with something, the entire household’s diet changes,” says Bob Doyle, a senior vice president at IRI.

Merrill, for example, shops not just for herself, but also hopes to prevent her husband and 11-year-old daughter from suffering her fate.

Some critics accuse the industry of trying to profit off sickness, but American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Dawn Jackson Blatner says anything that makes it easier for consumers to make healthy choices is a good thing.

Marketing good-for-you foods is nothing new, but the tactic is becoming increasingly sophisticated and ailment-specific.

Broad healthy living campaigns are being replaced with efforts that narrowly target foods to people with particular conditions, says John Stanton, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Along with those heart-healthy sections that appealed to Merrill, grocers increasingly are introducing shelves of sugar-free items for diabetics and gluten-free foods for people with wheat allergies.

The Maine-based Hannaford Bros. Co. grocery chain, for example, recently added gluten-free and dairy-free sections to its 140 stores in the Northeast and is developing plans for additional health-inspired sections.

“It absolutely is a question of making a grocery store more user-friendly,” says Hannaford spokeswoman Caren Epstein, who notes that the typical grocer offers 35,000 items these customers otherwise would need to comb through.

Products also are becoming more specialized. Low-fat and low-sugar are old news. Minute Maid has an entire line of health-based orange juices, including its Heart Wise, which the company claims helps lower cholesterol because it is fortified with plant sterols.

Since its introduction two years ago, Heart Wise has outsold most other Minute Maid orange juices, says company spokesman Ray Crockett. With so many people concerned about cholesterol, offering such a product just made sense, he says.

Companies eager for healthy bragging rights also can seek certification from the American Heart Association, which awards its Heart Check Mark to items low in saturated fat and cholesterol. So far 850 products from 100 companies have passed muster.

And the increasingly ubiquitous in-store pharmacy isn’t just a convenience anymore; it also is an opportunity to cross-merchandise. Why not grab some oatmeal _ purported to reduce cholesterol _ while waiting for your heart medications?

Stand-alone pharmacies _ already chipping into the grocery market with growing food offerings _ are using the same tactic to fight back. Rite Aid, which operates 3,350 shops nationwide, recently said it wants its brand to be synonymous with caring for diabetes.

Among efforts to that end, the Pennsylvania company has broadened its selection of diabetic-friendly products and at many stores offers cooking lessons to help diabetics and their families understand the role of diet in managing the condition.

But there are potential pitfalls, including a tendency to oversimplify the market, says IRI’s Doyle.

Though people with high cholesterol buy more vitamins than diabetics (who spend more on meat and eggs), men coping with cholesterol shop differently than women, buying more indulgences such as cookies, according to IRI.

Misinformation is another concern. Dietitians say look to the back of packages for nutrition facts; assume anything else is advertising. Even accurate information can give consumers the wrong impression (fat-free or not, cookies require portion control).

Companies also risk backlash when consumers don’t see instant _ or sometimes any _ results from foods that make health promises.

“You don’t drop 2 pounds in two days. You don’t see your cholesterol cut in half,” says Cornell University marketing and nutrition professor Brian Wansink. “It sets these foods up for failure when people don’t see immediate cure-all benefits.”