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CHICAGO, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Kraft Foods Inc KFT.N is expanding foods it says promote healthy digestion, but some analysts are not sure consumers are ready for prebiotic fiber -- the additive used in the new products.
The company plans to expand the LiveActive brand in January with new Crystal Light drink mix sticks, Planters nuts and a new breakfast cereal, according to Amy Wagner, senior director of integrated marketing at Kraft.
Kraft, which has been using health and wellness claims as a way to boost sluggish sales, has already had some success with LiveActive cheese snacks and cottage cheese.
The new products use prebiotic fiber to help promote regularity, not the probiotic cultures consumer might be more familiar with, a change that analysts said could confuse shoppers.
"Prebiotic, probiotic, I think that's a meaningless distinction for consumers," said Bob Goldin, executive vice president at Technomic, a food and restaurant research and consulting firm.
Foods and vitamins with probiotics have been a growing market, with sales of $954 million in the 52 weeks ended Dec. 1, up 42.2 percent from a year earlier, according to the Nielsen Co, which tracks data in the U.S. food, drug and mass merchandiser channels, excluding Wal-Mart.
Of that, $729.8 million was from yogurt and yogurt drinks, Nielsen said.
Probiotics are are live cultures, also known as "good bacteria," that are used in foods to help aid digestion. Prebiotic fiber, which will be used in the new Kraft products, feed the probiotics.
While consumers in other countries, such as China and Japan, have embraced the concept of digestive health, it is still relatively new in the United States, said Linda Van Horn, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
"The food industry, I believe, is recognizing an awareness and a growing interest in this area," she said.
Kraft's LiveActive natural cheese, launched in September, has already gained 2.6 percent of the market in its category, Tim McLevish, executive vice president and chief financial officer, said during a conference call on Oct 31. Kraft declined to provide more recent data.
Wagner said Crystal Light was a product that was already seen as having the health benefit of hydration, so adding something else to promote health and wellness with the product made sense.
But consumers might be more skeptical about getting a benefit from an manufactured product such as Crystal Light than from a natural dairy product, Technomic's Goldin said.
"Crystal Light is an engineered product in the first place," Goldin said. "It runs the risk of being perceived as too engineered a product."
Northwestern's Van Horn also cautioned there was no widespread data showing a healthier population after regularly consuming products that promote digestive health.
Kraft is hoping to educate consumers about the benefits of prebiotics. Packages of LiveActive products direct consumers to a Web site (www.liveactivefoods.com), which includes information about prebiotics and probiotics.
"Our key strategy for providing the information is through our Web site," Wagner said.
Getting consumers to understand the benefits of prebiotics will be important as food companies, looking to tap into the growing health and wellness trend, come out with more products with prebiotics, said Ken Harris, managing director at consulting firm Cannondale Associates.
"There will be a reasonable amount of education that is required in order to make prebiotics understood by consumers and that is going to be the biggest challenge for marketers," Harris added. (Editing by Andre Grenon)