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The skinny on Kraft's fight against obesity

As waistlines continue to increase in girth throughout North America and Europe, Kraft goes on the offensive


School-children eat lunch in the cafeteria at Lewisboro Elementary School in South Salem, New York. Kraft Foods Inc said earlier this month that it would rethink some of its product lines and introduce new steps to help fight the worldwide problem of obesity.


Three weeks ago, Kraft Foods Inc, the nation's largest food company, said it was going to help fight a global epidemic -- obesity.

Now comes the hard part. How does the maker of Oreo cookies, Velveeta cheese, Tombstone Pizza and Oscar Mayer wieners actually help trim waistlines? And can a food giant profit from selling people on the idea of eating less?

Food industry experts are, well, skeptical.

"I think this is all about P.R.," said William Leach, a food analyst at Banc of America Securities.

Even Kraft officials -- who have vowed to reduce portion sizes and cut the fat and calories of some products -- are playing down some of their planned changes.

"We're not going to do anything radical," said Michael Mudd, a spokesman for Kraft. "This is about making small, incremental changes."

The problem, most experts say, is that while food companies have increasingly offered healthier alternatives, consumers continue to favor snacks and products packed with tasty fats and sugars, what some health experts call the "maximally seductive" products.

Kraft's research and development team is now looking to remove fat and sugar from some of the company's popular items, where possible, without compromising taste.

"It's very difficult," said Jean Spence, one of Kraft's top research and development executives. "The holy grail is to take the fat out and have the taste stay the same."

And Kraft has plenty of fat to trim. The company's biggest selling items are things like Kraft cheese and Oreo cookies, which have undergone a massive brand extension.

'Double Delight'

There are now, for instance, "Double delight" Oreos with peanut butter and chocolate creme, fudge-covered Oreos, miniature Oreos, Doublestuf Oreos (with double the cream filling), Oreo ice cream and even the "extreme creme taste" Oreo O's, a breakfast cereal with marshmallow bits.

Indeed, to bolster its share of the snack food market, Philip Morris, the majority owner of Kraft, paid US$14.9 billion in 2000 to acquire Nabisco, the maker of Oreos and Chips Ahoy, and merge the unit with Kraft.

"There really aren't that many things growing in the food industry that aren't snack-related," said John McMillin, a food analyst at Prudential Securities. "Snacks are growing 3 to 4 percent, where the rest of the food industry is growing by about 1 percent."

Kraft scientists have succeeded in eliminating trans fats from some products like Ritz Crackers. But the company has not yet "cracked the code" with cream-filled Oreos, executives said. There are 2.5 grams of trans fat in a three-cookie serving of Oreos.

Kraft has also created a healthier line of Lunchables, its popular ready-to-eat children's lunch packages. Health experts like to point out that Lunchables often come packed with unhealthy items like deep dish cheese pizza, nachos, hot dogs and soda.

Earlier this year, Kraft introduced a new line of Lunchables called Fun Fuel, which includes 100 percent fruit juice, yogurt and smaller servings of low-fat cheese and lean meat.

According to the company, the Fun Fuel Chicken Wraps have 440 calories, 13 grams of fat (including 5 grams of saturated fat) and 860 milligrams of sodium. By contrast, Kraft's top-selling old-style Lunchable -- the Pepperoni Pizza version -- has 467 calories, 17 grams of fat (8 grams of saturated fat) but has only 753 milligrams of sodium.

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