Since their conception as hospital food in the 1970s, liquid meals have grown in stature and popularity to become a weapon in today?s fight against the ?globesity? epidemic. But as families increasingly become starved for time, it?s a format that is even beginning to appeal to non-dieters. Shane Starling reports
Replacing meals with something more convenient is a concept that was born in hospitals many decades ago. Patients who physically could not eat whole meals because of their ailments were given liquid meals, usually in the form of a shake or a purée, to provide them with the nutrients they required to aid their recovery.
Some of these liquid meals were picked up by food companies in the 1970s and marketed predominantly to women who wanted to lose weight. And so a new market segment was born.
Subsequent takeup by sports enthusiasts, particularly gym-users, accentuated the trend and broadened the demographic interested in replacing meals. Indeed, gym-users and increasing numbers of athletes can choose from a multitude of powdered protein shakes and energy bars to replace meals with, even if these products are not necessarily considered meal substitutes by the food companies that make them.
No definitions hold fast when it comes to meal replacements. As Steve Allen, Nestlé?s global business development manager, notes: ?A meal replacement could be an apple.?
Yes, but would an apple contain all the nutrients of, say, Nestlé?s own long-standing breakfast replacement meal? The answer is no; this is the attraction of formulated meal replacements. ?It is a completely accurate way of eating,? Allen notes, ?which is not true if you go down to the local restaurant or put a meal together at home. It might be nutritious, but you don?t know just what you are getting. You do with a meal replacement because the nutritional information is required to be quantified on the label.?
Paying for convenience
Meal replacements carry more than just a low-calorie meal promise. They are also convenient. ?The meal replacement might cost a bit more, but, in terms of the time it saves the consumer, it might be infinitely valuable,? Allen observes. ?It depends how valuable time is to the individual consumer. It?s hard to get a bowl of cereal and milk into the car on the way to work.?
The convenience/nutrition combination is a vital one, according to US-based market research company Information Resources, which notes: ?To date, manufacturers and retailers have done a respectable job of responding to demands for convenience. However, the convenience trend has certainly not passed. Those who grab the bull by the horns, with respect to nutritionally responsible, convenient food alternatives, will raise the bar and define the playing field of the future.?
UK research company Leatherhead estimates the global weight loss market at $240 billion, with meal replacements making up a small but growing proportion of this figure. In the US, the market for meal replacement food and drink rose from $800 million in 1998 to $1.2 billion in 2002—of which $800 million was spent on beverages.
Unilever?s SlimFast brand dominates, accounting for 75 per cent of supermarket sales and 50 per cent of the weight loss snack bars sector in the US. There are many others such as Ensure from Abbott Labs, Go Lean from Kellogg?s subsidiary Kashi and Nestlé?s Carnation Instant Breakfast.
Adjuncts to the meal replacements market, such as sports nutrition and weight loss, also grew rapidly in the US from about $10 billion in 2000 to just over $14 billion in 2003, accounting for 23 per cent of the $62 billion US nutrition industry. A breakdown of the 2003 figures shows: weight loss pills accounted for $1.78 billion of sales; weight loss meal supplements $2.49 billion; sports supplements $1.9 billion; low-carbohydrate foods $830 million; nutrition bars $2.3 billion; and sports/energy drinks $4.77 billion. The total market is forecast to reach $27 billion by 2010.
Market researcher Freedonia predicts the US meal replacements market will be worth $2.4 billion by 2013 out of a total weight control market of more than $86 billion. It sees many threats to the US meal replacements market, stating: ?Liquid and powder meal replacement beverages will generate much slower growth in demand due to intensifying competition from conventional foods and beverages in low-calorie, low-fat and other health-enhanced formats. Reflecting the increasing popularity of the Atkins and South Beach diets, products low in carbohydrates are expected to capture an increasing share of the US meal replacements market over the next several years.?
In Europe, Leatherhead notes sales are smaller, but rising fast. The UK market for slimming aids is worth in the region of $200 million, with meal replacements accounting for 90 per cent of this figure. Again, SlimFast dominates the UK market.
German sales of slimming aids are worth $84 million, while France registers sales of $144 million, with meal replacements accounting for three-quarters of total sales. Spain?s market is worth $48 million, while Italy?s is worth $148 million.
Jurian Taas, German-based external communications manager at DSM Food Ingredients, says the ingredients giant is preparing a move into meal replacements in Europe and in other markets. ?It is a growing food segment, and we are looking at moving into it with our yeast extracts and enzymes,? he says. ?It is growing pretty quickly worldwide, according to our market research. We are concentrating on protein hydrolysis—looking to see what kind of properties we can develop and how we can market it into the nutritional market in areas such as meal replacements. It is an in-house programme at this stage.?
The meal replacement concept is a simple one—cram all the vitamins, minerals carbohydrates, protein and other nutrients you would normally get in one meal into a drink, and keep the calorie content to a minimum—usually around 200-300 calories. It?s easy to see why meal replacements were a winning concept among the dieting fraternity, especially among those seeking a quick fix to their growing waistlines. Of course, it is this same demographic that is interested in low-carb foods.
But as Mintel notes, meal replacements are consumed by more than just the overweight and obese. ?Manufacturers have created a new weight maintenance market by reorganising and repositioning their product as nutritional supplements, profiting from growing consumer health awareness,? the market research company observes. ?This means that products traditionally targeted at the overweight are now also targeted at the non-dieting consumer. Meal replacements such as SlimFast, for example, are increasingly positioned as an aid for weight control and healthy living, targeting those consumers looking for an extra nutritional intake in addition to their regular diet.?
Interest in meal replacements is being intensified by what has come to be known as the ?globesity? epidemic. The low-carb diet explosion, itself a response to globesity, is also fuelling interest in meal replacements, as many low-carb products are little more than low-calorie versions of former meals and hence, in a sense, meal replacements themselves.
In the same breath, low-carb has also presented a threat to the traditional meal replacement market, prompting Unilever to alter its SlimFast range in the process.
?It is fair to say that sales of SlimFast have been affected by the low-carb trend,? says Trevor Gorin at Unilever?s UK press office. ?Sales in Europe were down 20 per cent in 2003 and a majority of that effect would have been down to low-carb. We introduced a range of SlimFast low-carb products worldwide at the tail end of last year, and they now account for about 20 per cent of SlimFast sales. There?ll be extensions to that range throughout the rest of this year.?
Plummeting sales aside, the brand continues to dominate the meal replacements market, based as it is on a scientifically derived selection of nutrients. ?We describe it as a health and wellness brand,? Gorin observes. ?It?s one of those things where the description of it changes with each passing fad. At one time it is a diet brand, the next it is a weight management brand, the next it is a health and wellness brand. A lot of the terminology is driven by the media?s need for newness, but the product remains fundamentally the same.
?SlimFast is based on sound scientific principles and it is formulated to have enough nutrients to adequately replace a meal. The brand has been going for about 20 years and all through that time it has played on the fact that it has sound medical credentials. It does give you the nutrients you need. The basic idea of SlimFast is to give you the nutrients of a regular meal without the calories.?
Meal replacement formats have exploded since those meal-in-a-drink days so that meals can now be replaced by energy bars, by supplements, or even by trimmed-down versions of full meals. Like many dieting concepts, nutritionists have not tended to support meal replacements, but neither have they been universally panned; studies have shown that it can be an effective tool for those seeking to lose weight or build muscle.
One long-term 10-year community-based volunteer study found people who followed the SlimFast meal replacement plan to manage their weight were, on average, nearly 33lbs lighter after a decade when compared to a matched control group.
Indeed, even those who trade in meal replacements recommend against replacing all of one?s meals. California-based supplements and meal replacements manufacturer Herbalife offers dietary advice on its Web site that includes replacing breakfast, lunch and an (optional) afternoon snack with its nutrient shakes, but advises on a traditional dinner. It is advice nutritionists agree with, with conservatives advising against replacing more than one meal a day.
?I don?t think they are dangerous over a short period of time,? says Eric Weaver, PhD, director of the nutrition ingredients division at Iowa-based Proliant. ?You can lose weight that way, but you shouldn?t be replacing all your meals, and it is worth remembering that not all meal replacements are nutritionally complete.?