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Obesity rocketing despite record diet food spending

By Anthony Fletcher , 14-Feb-2006

The US might be consolidating its position as the fattest nation, but Europe is catching up fast - and all this despite record spending on diet products.

A new report from market analyst Datamonitor reveals that the American waistline is getting bigger even though consumer spending on diet products is forecast to increase to grow a further 20 per cent, to US$54bn in 2009.

The US has the dubious distinction of having more overweight and obese consumers both in terms of proportion of the population and of absolute numbers than any European country.

By 2009, almost 70 per cent of the population will be overweight or obese.

But the transatlantic weight gap is narrowing, according to John Band, consumer markets analysts at Datamonitor and author of the report.

"The US has by far the highest proportion of overweight and severely overweight consumers, but European consumers are not far behind: the figure for Europe is currently 48 per cent and will have crossed the 50 per cent barrier by 2009," he said.

"Within a few years, having a normal BMI (Body Mass Index) of 20-25 will in fact no longer be normal in Europe. In the UK, and Spain this is already the case; with 40 per cent and 39 per cent of the population classified as overweight (BMI of 25-30) respectively, overweight consumers already outnumber normal consumers."

The good news if there is any for the food industry is that weight concerns are boosting spending on diet food and drinks, on both sides of the Atlantic.

"High-fat ice cream, milk, cheese and cream products are often considered unacceptable when dieting, and many consumers following a healthy lifestyle will also avoid these foods which are considered to be high in fat and cholesterol," said Band.

As such, diet dairy products will remain very popular. Low-sugar and low-calorie confectionery is forecast to grow at the same yearly rate (+4.7 per cent) between 2004 and 2009.

Within the diet foods sector, low- and no-fat products account for more new product launches than those making any other lesser evil claims. In 2001, 7.4 per cent of new food products launched worldwide claimed to contain reduced levels of fat, rising to 10.4 per cent in 2005.

Although growth in the proportion of products claiming to be low-fat is comparatively low at only 7.0 per cent a year between 2001 and 2005, it remains in a dominant position: the benefits of a reduced fat intake are easily comprehensible and instinctively accepted by all consumers.

At the height of the Atkins craze in 2004, 14.1 per cent of new food products claimed to be low-carb, making this the only claim ever to be more widespread than being low-fat. However this popularity was short-lived: launches of low-carb products fell to only 5.1 per cent.

"This is a powerful illustration of the faddish nature of the diet market," said Band. "The high level of low-carb NPD was intimately linked to the temporary high popularity of a particular diet, but the ongoing dominant position of low-fat products reflects a long-term consumer health trend."

American consumers will spend more per head over the next five years than European consumers, with respective per head expenditures of $154 and $125 in 2004. By 2009 these figures will have grown to $177 and $147, with European growth outstripping US growth at 3.3 per cent a year compared to 2.7 per cent.

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