Consumers are increasing looking for healthy alternatives to traditionalfast food, writes John Downes
The growth in the number of companies offering healthy alternatives to eating fast food provides an indication of the demand amongst consumers for fresh, nutritious products - a gap in the market which several companies in Ireland are only too happy to fill.
When McDonald's, the traditional home of fast food such as burgers, fries and soft drinks, recently introduced a range of "healthy alternatives" to its menu, it seemed to signify a significant change in its marketing strategy.
Along with the more traditional staples of its menu, the company decided to offer salads and fresh fruit as well, a strategy that its international rival, Burger King, has also adopted.
"Our core business is still very important to us," a spokeswoman for the company, which has been the subject of much criticism for the calorie content of its food and the role this plays in childhood obesity.
"But the idea of 'one size fits all' doesn't necessarily work anymore.
"With regards to marketing, the bottom line is that you need to stay in tune with your customers. This helps us to become more relevant - we are aiming towards catering to a demand that is already there."
Indeed, most of us know that we should eat more healthily by increasing the amount of fruit we consume each day, introducing fibre-rich foods to our diet and reducing the amount of fat we eat.
However, this awareness of the importance of healthy eating means that there are significant marketing opportunities for companies willing to emphasise the health aspect of their products.
Where before much of the emphasis with relation to fast food was on convenience and price, recent years have seen the content and quality of the food in question begin to play just as crucial a role in determining whether a customer is going to buy a product or not.
As a result, many companies have had to adapt their marketing campaigns just to keep up.
"There is great concern in the western world about the relationship between food and health, and concern about obesity," says Mr Mike Feeney, executive director with responsibility for food at Enterprise Ireland.
"I can assure you that, going forward, people are going to become more and more educated about it, and are going to make the connection between health and food. The market is going to force companies to look at it."
O'Brien's Irish Sandwich Bars is one example of an Irish company that has sought to build on the growing interest among Irish consumers with regards to the materials that go into their sandwiches.
Through its "guilt free food" campaign, which includes detailing the number of calories in each of their ingredients, such as their bread and fillings, the company aims to allow its customers to make an informed choice when deciding what to eat.
"They can choose to eat whatever satisfies their appetite on a particular day," says Ms Bernadette McCullough, marketing manager with the company.
In general, she says, members of the public are becoming more conscious of the benefits of healthy eating. With regards to marketing the concept of 'guilt free food', O'Brien's also found it was greatly helped by its point-of-sale advertising.
"It was a time-consuming process for us, working with our suppliers over a four-six month period and then pulling all this together with our nutritionists. But we're quite blessed to have 80-odd stores. It is quite easy to get the message out when you have around 300-400 people coming in every day at lunchtime."
She is also clear about the benefit to the company of using healthy eating as a marketing tool.
"We want to be seen as a responsible fast food company - as a good place to go to have lunch. We are informing customers of which products contain which ingredients and calories. It is something we can hang our hat on, build a campaign around it, and increase in 2004."
The interest in healthy eating among Irish consumers is not restricted just to fast food, however. Recent years have also seen a growth in the yoghurt market, according to Mr Aidan Magennis of Glanbia, which produces market leader Yoplait.
One of the biggest factors in this expansion has been the introduction of yoghurts which, the producers claim, offer health benefits while tasting good as well.
Probiotic yoghurts, for example, contain special cultures, or bacteria, which are said to aid digestion or help boost the body's immune system. Among Glanbia's "bio" products are its Yoplait Everybody yoghurt drink and its Yoplait Bio+ yoghurt.
"Consumer demand for healthy and tasty products in the yoghurt market has been the main driver in the growth of the sector. The bio segment now accounts for over 30 per cent of the total sector," says Mr Magennis.
Establishing the link between the claims made by companies for their products, on one hand, and scientific research to back this up, is another possible area for development here in the Republic, Mr Feeney says.
"I genuinely believe there is great scope for growth in Ireland for this, particularly in the dairy ingredients side, and science and research," he says. "The critical component is the linking of market-led research into the development of new products."
Clearly, then, the health-conscious consumer is beginning to have a large impact on the marketing strategies of some of Ireland's best-known brands, which are increasingly seeking to take advantage of the opportunity to cater to this ever-expanding market.