Eating lite - it used to be called dieting

Food watchdogs claim that cynical marketing ploys are taking health- conscious shoppers for a ride, writes Mark Rowe
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The Independent Online
FORGET the diet. Food manu- facturers are now marketing their lower-fat ranges as "lite" or "light" products because they believe the "diet" label is outdated.

The trend has been met with cynicism by food watchdogs, who believe manufacturers are simply tapping into shoppers' raised awareness of health issues.

The diet label is no longer thought to appeal to a sufficiently wide range of people - it is perceived as a women-led obsession that tastes vile and takes the pleasure out of eating. In contrast, marketers believe that lite food sends the shopper a message that the product is good to eat - and also good for you.

As a result, shelves are bulging with more light foods than ever - crisps, biscuits, cheese, margarine and even beers are now sold with light or lite versions. Walkers Lites, which contain eight per cent fat, are typical of the new marketing. "It was a conscious decision," said a spokeswoman. "We want to appeal to men more and the word diet sounds a bit too girlie."

A spokeswoman for the makers of Philadelphia Light admitted that the word light "does give us certain marketing attractions", while the manufacturers of Flora margarine, Van den Bergh, which was among the pioneers of wide- audience food with its "margarine for men" slogan, endorses the view.

"The diet has poor connotations," said Lucy Johnson of Van den Bergh. "Someone choosing to eat Flora Light doesn't have to be on a diet. Diet is a punitive term, while light is more forward- thinking. We are trying to promote a more positive food choice and the word light has a wider appeal."

The key to success is to capture a wider audience. "The male aspect is significant. The word diet does not appeal to the macho image," said Clare Conley of Marketing Week. "It's a way of easing low-calorie and health products into the market without scaring people off.

"The diet is still valid for certain audiences but it does have connotations. You don't expect diet food to taste nice. Lite is a word that gets around that and appeals to a wider audience."

Food advisory bodies, however, suspect some manufacturers are playing on customer hopes of slimming in the way that they did with diet products - many of which offered higher salt and sugars in return for lower fat. "A lot of manufacturers are trying to get the best of both worlds," said Sue Dibb, co-director of the Food Commission. "They know people are beginning to accept the best way to maintain their health and lose weight is to have a healthy diet.

"There appears to be a shift away from the word diet," she said. "Healthy eating is becoming more of an issue. Food firms recognise there is a big market of people interested in their health."

But, the Food Commission believes manufacturers are simply selling the illusion that by eating their product you will lose weight. "It is a definite marketing decision. People on diets are trying to get thin while the word lite plays on the fear that most people have that they eat too much," said Mrs Dibb.

Both terms are misleading, she said. "Manufacturers can use the word lite to mean what they like, and that worries us. Firms know it is big words on a packet that attract people. Lite is an awful Am- ericanism but it suits food firms."

Britain is one of the few countries in Europe that does not have comprehensive legislation to cover claims of food content. Some continental countries ban the use of the word diet except for the promotion of medical diet- related foods. According to the Food Commission, the word lite is "totally meaningless".

"Food makers know it will attract the health and weight conscious," said Mrs Dibb. "It's a free for all and the companies are one step ahead of the law. But food companies can be selective in their presentation of information and there is nothing to stop them doing it."

Old English origins of an Americanism

THE WORD "lite" derives from the old English "Lyt", meaning little or not much. Another derivative can be found in Old Norse "litt", with the same meaning. Lite has only been in common use since the mid-Sixties, re-introduced through marketing and advertising.

"Lite" was first used as a mass-marketing tool for the Miller Brewing Company, who patented it in 1967 for its low-calorie beer. According to lexicographer Jonathon Green, the word was brought back to the UK as a product label. "A standard English pedant would find the word lazy and unattractive," said Mr Green.

The word will also appear in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It appears in the OED's additional series volume 3, where it is described as "designating a manufactured product that is lighter than the ordinary variety". But the definition also notes that it can refer to a something "lacking in substance or facile".