Food marketers look to chronic diseases to shape message

Thursday, November 10, 2005

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 life-style 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.

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