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CHIPPING AWAY AT FAT

The potato-chip maker that bet its customers they couldn't "eat just one" now is trying to appeal to customer fears of being fat.

In response to growing concerns about obesity, Frito-Lay Inc. is trumpeting a new, healthier chip that lacks trans fat, dubbed the "bad fat" by nutritionists. The Plano, Texas-based company is cooking its Lay's potato chips, Doritos, Fritos, Ruffles, Tostitos and Cheetos in oils that contain no trans fats.

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It began marketing the change this week in full-page advertisements in dozens of major newspapers and Hispanic publications. The ads feature pictures of the six snack products and the words "zip," zero," "zilch," "nada" and "nil" to describe the amount of trans fat.

"We're trying to help customers understand healthier options," said Charles Nicolas, a spokesman. "It's trying to reach a broader audience."

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Frito-Lay is only the latest major food producer or preparer moving to appeal to a more diet-conscious public. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates that about 13 percent of children and adolescents are overweight, double the percentage in 1980.

From McDonald's salad promotions, to Applebee's restaurants adding Weight Watchers-certified meals, to Kraft Foods rethinking its marketing to children, companies are rushing to satisfy concerns about weight.

The trend has drawn skepticism from some consumer watchdog groups. They see the moves as public relations strategies to deflect blame as consumers file lawsuits against fast-food restaurants and companies for contributing to obesity in the first place.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington applauded Frito-Lay's healthier snack options, but questioned whether its $1 million advertising campaign offers a false impression that it's OK to eat as many chips as someone wants without gaining pounds.

"Frito-Lay should not be saying, 'Look our product is healthier, eat more,'" said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the center. "A no-trans fat potato chip has just as many calories as a trans-fat chip. They may decrease the risk of heart disease, but eat a whole bag and you can still get fat."

The "better for you" trend is expected to increase, industry and health analysts said, as competitors try to keep up with each other and aging "baby boomers" find their metabolism slowing.

"I don't think there's any question these companies are trying to address the market demand, and the demand is real among consumers," said Mark McLellan, director of the Institute of Food Science and Engineering at Texas A&M; University in College Station, Texas.

Trans fats occur naturally in meat and dairy foods, but most come from partially hydrogenated oils used to make margarine, cookies, french fries and other processed foods. Studies have found trans fat raises the level of so-called bad cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease.

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Frito-Lay for several years has also sold potato chips with the fat substitute Olestra under the brand name "Wow." It declined to say what percentage of sales derive from its lower-fat chips, but said they are among the company's fastest-growing products.

But consumers have proven finicky when it comes to buying healthier snacks. Sales often start strong, fueled by good intentions, but the old versions often taste better to many consumers.

"Most of these low-calorie, no-sodium, healthier food options have been around before, and most have met with mediocre success," said Robert S. Goldin, executive vice president of Chicago-based Technomic Inc., a consulting firm that tracks the food industry.

The average person ate low-fat or low-sodium potato chips only once in the year ending in February - and chips with fat substitute less than one time, according to the NPD Group Inc., a research firm in Port Washington, N.Y. It also reported that the average person eats 43 cookies a year, but only three of them of the low-fat or low-sugar variety.

Procter & Gamble Co., the Cincinnati-based creator of Olestra, saw a strong demand for its fat substitute in its first year, but sales dropped off significantly. The product never came close to initial projections of $1 billion in worldwide sales annually, beset with medical controversy and complaints that it might cause consumers to spend the day in the bathroom.

Procter & Gamble blamed the image problem on a requirement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that Olestra products carry the label, "Olestra may cause cramping and loose stools." The FDA lifted that requirement this summer.

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Company officials wouldn't release specific numbers but said they've seen a recent surge in Pringles products with Olestra.

"Over the past year or so, we've seen an increase in fat-free Pringles," said Suzette Middleton, a nutritionist and external communications manager with Procter & Gamble. "More and more consumers are becoming interested in reducing fat in their diet."

For now, Middleton said, the market for healthier snack options remains small, and they are not yet big sources of profit. "Even though you see the number increasing by leaps and bounds, it's starting from a smaller number," she said.

Analysts said consumer response to these products will increase significantly only when the taste improves.

"The holy grail is for a low-caloric food that tastes great," McLellan said.

Trimming waistlines

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Other major companies luring the diet-conscious:

* McDonald's - The world's largest fast-food chain said it was teaming up with Oprah Winfrey's fitness coach to promote a Go Active menu - dubbed "happy meals for adults" - including salad, bottled water and a predometer to count steps.

* Applebee's - The restaurant chain announced a licensing agreement with Weight Watchers International to feature an assortment of low-fat Weight Watchers-branded menu items.

* Kraft - The U.S.' largest food company, maker of cheese, Oreo cookies and Lunchables meals, announced an anti-obesity initative to reduce portion sizes, provide more nutritional information and establish new guidelines for marketing children's foods.

* Burger King - This month, the second-largest hamburger chain announced a new line of low-fat grilled chicken sandwiches.

Sources: Lexis Nexis, company Web sites

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