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Consuming Issue : Sales of Healthy Items Are Just That, but Does Label Fit the Food?


Food is getting healthier. At least, that's what more and more packages say.

There are frozen dinners with names such as Healthy Choice and Light and Healthy. A line of soups is called Healthy Request. There are even salad dressings named Healthy Sensation.

To food marketers, "healthy is the hot button for the '90s," said Jeff Sandore, product manager for Tyson Food Co.'s Healthy Portions frozen dinner line. Foods with healthy on the label are expected to ring up $1 billion in sales this year, compared to none a scant three years ago.

The food companies say that healthy foods appeal mostly to the over-30 crowd of consumers who want to eat right but aren't necessarily trying to diet. Melodie Whitehead, a 30-year-old Glendale bank employee, says she lunches on Healthy Choice entrees two to three times a week. "I feel like I get a good lunch," she said. "And it costs less than going to a restaurant."

But the soaring popularity of healthy brands is causing some consumer advocates and nutritionists to question whether the expanding collection of salad dressings, fish sticks, dairy desserts and frozen chicken dinners really deserve to be called healthy.

Two influential consumer organizations last week asserted that many of the brands aren't much better than foods without healthy on the label. Contending that consumers are being misled, the National Consumers League and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban the word.

Food companies say they aren't fooling consumers by calling their products healthy. As Campbell Soup Co. spokesman Kevin Lowry puts it, "All our food is healthy."

While the FDA intends to include healthy in an overhaul of the nation's food labeling rules, it isn't clear what steps it will take. The agency has already rankled the food industry with proposed definitions for such marketing buzzwords as light, low and reduced. But a strict definition for healthy could be the most controversial because it affects many prized brand names.

Hugh Latimer, a Washington lawyer who frequently represents Kraft General Foods and other food companies, said the industry isn't likely to give up its healthy brands without a court fight. "They've invested millions of dollars in these brands," he said.

What's at stake is one of the fastest-growing slices of the food business. Conagra alone is expected to take in $400 million this year from its 3-year-old Healthy Choice line of frozen dinners, soups, breakfasts and pizzas.

Month after month, the food industry cranks out more healthy brands. In recent weeks, Campbell Soup, Conagra and Van de Kamp have introduced healthy fish dinners, Tyson's brought out a healthy chicken dinner line, and Conagra came out with a healthy spaghetti sauce.

While analysts say the heavily promoted healthy brands are not making much money--due in part to high initial marketing costs--people in the industry say profits are in sight.

According to Tyson's Sandore, all the big food companies are tinkering with their formulas to get the fat, sodium and cholesterol down to match competitors' healthy offerings. For example, Campbell's reworked its Harvest Grain breakfast entrees last summer, renaming them Great Starts Healthy. Healthy, Sandore said, "is where the growth is."

What makes a healthy food healthy? Not even the food companies agree.

Sandore said Tyson's Healthy Portions frozen chicken dinners are not only "nutritionally sound" but, at 13 1/2 ounces, "a healthy size" compared to competitors' 10-ounce meals.

Thomas J. Lipton Inc. says its low-calorie, low-fat Healthy Sensations dressings are healthy because they are normally eaten with healthful salads or fresh vegetables. "It is very much a part of the salad concept," assistant general counsel John Young said. "No one is going to go to the refrigerator and take a slug of salad dressing."

Campbell spokesman Lowry said the company's healthy brands should be "viewed as part of a healthy diet . . . we never said you should eat just one food"--a concept some nutritionists say is valid.

But consumer activists say the lack of agreement makes it hard for consumers to determine what's healthy and what's not. The National Consumers League said two of three consumers it surveyed believed that healthy foods were low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and calories, though that is not always the case.

Take Campbell's Healthy Request vegetable beef soup. The National Consumers League found that it has less sodium but more calories than a can of Campbell's regular vegetable beef soup. The league found that Kraft General Foods' Budget Gourmet Light and Healthy Lasagna has fewer calories but nearly twice the cholesterol of the competing Michelina's brand, which doesn't make a healthy claim.

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