New Food Products Geared to Charm Children

Microwave items are big with the small set; so are Ninja Turtles, dinosaurs. TRENDS

IF this gigantic display of new grocery-store products is any indication, marketers are beginning to target a new generation of consumers: baby-boomer kids. Today's young parents are raising fewer children than previous generations, but they are typically spending more per child. Longer-lived grandparents are showering these scarce grandchildren with affection and money. All this means that many of the new products introduced by more than 1,000 companies at this year's Supermarket Industry Convention and Educational Exposition here were aimed at children.

Microwave foods now make up more than 10 percent of all new products. The segment has grown from 278 items in 1986 to more than 1,000 last year, and one of the newest growth categories is microwaveable meals for kids.

The Campbell Microwave Institute says that 16 percent of all microwave oven users are children aged 4 to 9. Another 37 percent are young people from 10 to 17. Microwaves are popular with kids for two reasons: They are easy to use (easy to turn on and off, easy to open and close), and parents are willing to let their children use an oven that doesn't get hot. (Microwaved food, however, can get very hot. Most companies recommend that young children use the microwave only with adult supervision.)

Food manufacturers point to what they see as the advantages of microwave food for kids: Grandparents can stick them in the freezer for when the grandchildren visit, and parents can have them on hand for baby sitters to prepare. New children's microwave meals include Banquet's Kids Cuisine products and Looney Tunes Meals from Tyson Foods.

The Kids Cuisine line includes two side dishes (fruits, vegetables, starches), and dessert (cookies or brownies), along with entr'ees such as pizza, cheeseburgers, and chicken nuggets.

Marketing products for children is not brand new, of course, especially in categories such as cereal, cookies, snacks, toothpaste, candy, and soft drinks. Today the extremely popular Teddy Grahams cookies are available in a new cereal from Nabisco. Dinosaurs are still the favorite animal shape, however: New products include Salerno Dinosaur Cookies, Mueller's Super Shapes Pasta, and dinosaur potatoes from the McCain Company. There's even a yogurt line (Kemp's Yogurt for Kids, which includes peanut butter and jelly yogurt) that uses dinosaurs in its ads.

But the hottest merchandising characters (Cowabunga!) are the ubiquitous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Here are a few of the products endorsed by these unusual creatures: Ralston Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cereal, Ellio's TMNT Pizza, Delicious TMNT Cookies, and Kraft TMNT Light 'n' Lively Yogurt. cho Another new item, one that may have big appeal for kids, is Pelican Bay's I Can Bake Dirt Cake with Mud Frosting. (Keep sponges and mops nearby.)

Cornucopia at the supermarket

Despite predictions to the contrary, even more new products reached US supermarket shelves last year than ever before - 12,055, to be exact, up 14 percent from 1988. ``But don't be surprised if they all don't appear in your supermarket,'' says Lynn Dornblaser, publisher of Gorman's New Product News, a magazine that tracks new products. ``Our reports include many local, regional, and test-market brands, so every store will not be flooded with 12,055 new items.'' About half that many will be available nationwide.

And not every new product is truly ``new.'' The bulk of the new products introduced each year are ``line extensions'' - new flavors and the like. ``It's difficult to define precisely what is a truly `new' item,'' Ms. Dornblaser says, ``but we estimate that only 10 percent of the 12,055 products could be considered as purely `new,' that is, never having been available to consumers before.''

Interest in nutrition has skyrocketed in the past year and Nancy Wellman, president of the American Dietetic Association says Americans are into what she calls ``hyper-nutrition.''

``There has been an unparalleled food marketing heyday with labels and advertisements,'' she said in an exhibition workshop. ``I am pleased we are on the verge of food labeling reform, for consumers are very confused by adjectival descriptors used in brand names: `Rich,' `high,' `reduced,' `low,' `lower,' `very low,' `lite,' `lean,' `imitation,' `natural,' `healthy,' and `fresh' are widely used without definitions.'' How, for example, could a canned Italian spaghetti sauce be called ``fresh''? A number of state attorneys general are wondering the same thing, Ms. Wellman replied. ``The [spaghetti sauce] company's response could be that the sauce is made by an impudent chef from Milan,'' she said wryly.

`Light' and `fat free' are today's buzz words

``Light'' was one of last year's buzz words and is still continuing as a major product descriptor to denote low fat. There are ``light'' cheeses (Lorraine Lights has been a significant success), and super-premium ``light'' ice creams (Steve's, Ben & Jerry's). Frozen yogurt has made a major comeback, thanks to newer, better taste and texture. Even McDonald's is putting frozen yogurt in its restaurants. Jell-O Refrigerated Pudding, an outstanding success last year, is now available in a ``light'' version. Virtually every microwave popcorn manufacturer has a ``light'' edition in their lines.

The new buzz word for the 1990s appears to be ``fat free.'' One much-heralded item is NutraSweet's Simple Pleasures, a line of frozen desserts made with a natural fat substitute called Simplesse.

Kraft General Foods is aggressively launching new products that are completely fat-free: Sealtest Free, Kraft Fat-Free Salad Dressings, and Light 'n' Lively Yogurt.

Also, General Foods is slowly expanding Entenmann's Fat-Free, Cholesterol-Free line of cakes, cookies, and Danish pastry.

Other significant trends

Single-serve products. In addition to the ubiquitous juice boxes, now there are Henri's Single-Serve Salad Dressings and Folger's Microwave Coffee Bags (similar to tea bags).

Smaller products. Dubuque Pan Size Bacon, with strips half as long as in a traditional package for easier handling, raises the question: Why did it take so long?

Not quite as practical, but appealing, are Keebler's mini chocolate chip cookies. Then there are Life Saver Holes. (Makes you wonder what they did with the holes before.)

More ``people food'' for pets. Puppipizza joins Frosty Paws, the ice cream for dogs introduced last year.

Do-it-yourself gourmet. Cuisine Cubes contain frozen herbs. McCormick's has sauce mixes for Italian, Cajun, and other flavors, while Home Gourmet Boxes contain herbs, stock bases, and directions - sort of a cooking-by-numbers kit.

Foreign influences. Food products native to other countries and cultures are being made in the US now. There's Vermont Butter & Cheese Cr`eme Fra^iche, risotto mixes, Maxwell House French Roast Coffee, and Ferrero Rafaello Candy.

And finally, someone has come up with an alternative to the bland-tasting Chinese fortune cookie: They will be available soon in chocolate and citrus flavors.

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