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Snacks Under Attack

First it was those evil fats and salts in snack foods. Then, the carbohydrates they contained were vilified. Now snacks are being targeted because obesity has been pegged as one of the country's top killers.

Wondering what might become the next Darth Vader of their industry, snack makers are reacting warily to the latest health crazes.

No matter what, many expect the taste bud will win out in the end.

The $22 billion salty snack industry, always on the defensive against the latest nutritional fad, is adjusting to the latest demand with some new products and advertising. But many companies are still banking on the natural craving for a salty, crunchy snack that flat out tastes good.

"How often do you sit down and say 'I want a cold beer and baked potato chips?'" said David Ray, general manager of Snyder of Berlin, one of many snack makers gathered this week for a Snack Food Association convention in Philadelphia.

The latest blow for snacks came this month when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study saying more Americans soon will be dying of obesity than from smoking. A poor diet and physical inactivity caused 400,000 deaths in 2000, a 33 percent jump over 1990, the study said.

Robert Shearer, president of Shearer's Foods Inc., hears that message, but refuses to sacrifice taste by changing the recipe of popular chips like the salt-and-vinegar, kettle-cooked variety.

His Brewster, Ohio-based company has started printing a message on the back of its bags, advising snackers to eat less and to get lots of exercise.

"We're promoting healthy lifestyles," Shearer said, adding that customers complained when the company tried to change to a healthier oil in one variety of chips.

Many people in snack sales say they aren't too quick to respond to health crazes because they often die out.

"We're selling impulse items," said Joseph Papiri, vice president of sales and marketing for Snak King, of City of Industry, Calif., whose company is exploring low-carb products but isn't sure it's worth diving into that market yet.

Many snack makers point to the low-fat craze in the 1990s, which skyrocketed and then faded.

"It went up and everybody got into it and then it dropped like a rock," Ray said.

Dieticians, however, say healthy eating isn't just a fad, and that the obesity epidemic is a perfect example of why snack makers need to help people change what they eat.

"It's not a fad that we're getting fatter in this country, because we've been getting fatter for 30 to 40 years," said Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center. "That's a problem, a serious problem. ... They're not making their snack foods any healthier."

In general, snack companies tend to ride the wave of health-food fads and not overreact to the latest craze, said Thomas A. Schmidt Sr. president of Quality Ingredients Inc., which supplies ingredients to snack makers. "People get worn out with this stuff," he said.

The folks who make pork rinds aren't complaining, because sales of the no-carb snacks have been surging. Bags of pork rinds made by Dallas-based Rudolph Foods loudly declare "zero carbs" and the company says sales are up 22 percent.

That's the biggest jump since the first President Bush declared pork rinds his favorite snack in the late 1980s.

"It's putting us into new places in the stores," said Mark Singleton, Rudolph Foods' vice president of sales. "We're now showing up in the better-for-you section."

By Patrick Walters