Shopping habits show food advice is being ignored

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Consumers have responded to the Government's healthy-eating message by stuffing themselves with cake, swilled down with plenty of alcohol. In apparent defiance of warnings about obesity, sales of the sticky confections jumped nearly 5 per cent last year. Shoppers also spent more on chocolate, biscuits, fats and yoghurts. The annual survey of top brands, in The Grocer magazine, also showed sales of lager and wine had soared.

Consumers have responded to the Government's healthy-eating message by stuffing themselves with cake, swilled down with plenty of alcohol. In apparent defiance of warnings about obesity, sales of the sticky confections jumped nearly 5 per cent last year. Shoppers also spent more on chocolate, biscuits, fats and yoghurts. The annual survey of top brands, in The Grocer magazine, also showed sales of lager and wine had soared.

The increases fly in the face of advice from experts for people to reduce the amount of sugar and fat they eat and curb excessive drinking. But the survey, covering the 12 months to October 2004, shows the pattern of snacking is changing, with less emphasis on the everyday treat and a switch to more extravagant weekend indulgences.

It also shows that while the sweet-toothed consumer cannot easily be separated from his cake, he is prepared to choose a healthier version if it is packaged and marketed in an appealing manner.

Simon Mowbray, marketing editor of The Grocer, said: "Health is very definitely on the agenda with the government public health White Paper and the threat of curbs on children's advertising. [This] has not been the easiest of years for the food industry, which has faced unprecedented levels of criticism. But we are finding that consumers are changing their behaviour to a deprivation-reward culture. They are avoiding snacking on unhealthy foods during the week then rewarding themselves with a more indulgent treat at the weekend."

Sales of packets of crisps fell by 4.9 per cent. But larger family packs for sharing rose strongly, with Walkers' luxury brand Sensations up by 34 per cent. "People are going without the crisp packet in the lunch-box but splurging on a pack of Sensations to share with friends while watching the telly on a Friday night," Mr Mowbray said.

Celebration cakes, bought for birthdays and anniversaries, are booming, along with sales of other large cakes, revealing the same pattern of a growth in treats that can be shared. McVities' Jamaica Ginger cake is up 13 per cent and Mr Kipling Manor House cake is up 25 per cent. But sales of individual cake bars fell, with McVities' Jaffa cake bars down almost 17 per cent and Cadbury cake bars down over 8 per cent.

But in every sector, the demand for healthier options fuelled the strongest growth. Healthier biscuits and cereal bars with lower sugar, fat and salt rose almost 10 per cent last year while sales of other biscuits languished in the doldrums. Chocolate biscuit bars were down almost 6 per cent. Cereal bars have grown as a breakfast substitute for "deskfasting" commuters who take their first meal of the day in the office.

Alcohol sales show a switch from drinking in clubs and pubs to more consumption at home. Two-thirds of all alcohol sold is for drinking at home and estimates suggest this could rise to 80 per cent in the next few years as people adopt more continental-style drinking habits. New World wine brands, Hardy's and Blossom Hill, showed the strongest growth, up 25 per cent. Among lagers, Carlsberg sales soared 36 per cent after aggressive promotion around the Olympics. Overall wine sales grew by 6 per cent and beer sales by 3 per cent last year.

Neville Rigby, of the International Obesity Task Force, said the switch to healthier alternatives was encouraging. "Clearly the consumer can respond if the food industry puts its marketing muscle into the promotion of healthier options. What we would like to see is it putting more effort in that direction."

Leading article, page 44

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