Food researchers work on carving out nutritious niche
By DAVE WILKINS
Last summer at the Western Idaho Fair near Boise some weary customers were invited to cool off with one of McDonald's newest creations -- fruit smoothies.
The product featured flavors such as wild berry and strawberry banana blended with ice cream and creamy yogurt. Best of all for fairgoers, the treats were free, thanks to the Idaho Dairy Products Commission.
The commission has worked with McDonald's franchises in Southern Idaho for the past 18 months on new dairy product introductions, including the new smoothies, specialty coffee drinks and cheeseburgers.
The commission pays for the products, which has allowed McDonald's customers to sample the new products for free.
"We've worked with McDonald's and have paid for the product to be sampled in their stores," said Cheri Chase, communications director for the Idaho Dairy Products Commission.
"McDonald's has really stepped out there and said, 'We are going to do this,' and that has been great for the dairy industry," she said.
Sales at McDonald's restaurants in the U.S. increased by 4 percent in April compared with a year ago, the company reported in early May. The increase was fueled in part by the McCafe beverage lineup, which includes specialty coffee drinks and fruit smoothies, company officials said.
The McCafe line has been a big hit with customers and contributed significantly to profits, said Bill Kyle, franchise owner of several McDonald's restaurants in south-central Idaho.
"It's been very well received by our customers from the get-go," Kyle said. "It's certainly helped quite dramatically. The McCafe line has done very well throughout the nation and in Southern Idaho."
Customers can expect additional offerings in the McCafe lineup in the future, he said.
"We are continuing to evolve that line as time goes on," he said. "We're always looking for new ways to enhance our product offerings."
The national dairy checkoff program is directly involved in helping companies like McDonald's, Domino's Pizza and Yoplait develop and introduce new menu items, Chase said. The industry now has two food scientists who work on site at the McDonald's menu development center.
Yoplait recently introduced a new retail product that allows people to make their own smoothies at home.
"It's gone crazy," she said.
In fact, smoothies are one of the hottest snack categories out there, she said. Smoothie sales at fast food restaurants soared 21.5 percent last year, according to industry data.
New dairy product introductions increased milk usage at fast food restaurants by 500 million pounds last year, Chase said.
The dairy industry is intent on getting its share of the growing U.S. snack food industry, which rakes in about $90 billion a year.
Dairy products account for just 13 percent of all between-meal snack choices for people 2 years and older, so there's plenty of room for growth, according to the industry.
Keeping pace in the increasingly competitive beverage sector isn't easy. The sector includes a plethora of new energy drinks, some loaded with caffeine, sweeteners and other ingredients.
"The beverage category has grown tremendously," Chase said. "We have to come out with new products to make dairy available to consumers."
If dairy has an edge, it's the nutritional aspect, she said.
"There are lots of nutritional claims out there, but dairy is by far and away one of the most nutritious foods you can consume," she said.