You couldn't fault the quality of Nestle Rowntree's PR planning last week.
Stories about its introduction of low-carbohydrate Kit Kats and Rolos appeared in the media just two days before the hard-hitting report on obesity from the House of Commons health select committee was published.
Food firms have been steeling themselves for the report ever since McDonald's, PepsiCo, Kellogg and Cadbury-Schweppes were grilled by MPs last November. Although it contained some stringent recommendations for the industry, there were some morsels of good news for Nestle UK's confectionery marketers.
The report recommends that manufacturers and retailers do more than focus solely on reducing fat levels by adding refined carbohydrates or sugars; it wants them to introduce food products with lower 'energy density' - a measure of a food's calorie content in relation to its total volume.
As a result, the Nestle low-carb products have drawn a cautious welcome from the committee. 'We'll have to see how robust these products are, but this is one example of the steps that need to be taken,' says MP Keith Bradley. Chairman David Hinchliffe argues that the net effect would only be positive if consumers don't choose to eat more because of the low carbohydrate levels.
Of course, Nestle's low-carb confectionery was not devised primarily to toe parliament's line on curbing obesity, even if this is a PR-friendly (and politically astute) side-effect. Nestle is targeting the 3m UK consumers dodging bread and potatoes in an effort to stick to low-carb diets.
The Atkins phenomenon is becoming hugely influential, and is fast replacing low fat as the dieting flavour of the month. Only last week, two American reports showed that, contrary to the suspicions of the medical establishment, people do lose weight by cutting their intake of carbohydrates, with no identified health problems.
Manufacturers are rushing to develop products that can capitalise on this trend. UK consumers can already buy low-carb beer and bread, as well as a range of Atkins-branded food in Boots. A Reuters Business Insight report found that over a quarter of European and US food and drink companies are actively researching low-carb products.
Is it a step too far to extend this trend to chocolate? Confectionery companies' innovation departments have tried and failed to launch healthy versions of chocolate bars before. Mars tested a low-fat version of its Mars Bar, dubbed Mars Light, in 1997, only to conclude that the product's taste wasn't good enough.
Jon Platt, an inventor working with one of the major confectionery firms at innovation agency What If?, believes confectionery is a category consumers don't expect to be healthy. 'Consumers compartmentalise their eating occasions,' he says. 'They may eat healthily so that they can indulge in a product such as chocolate at other times.'
With all the publicity about obesity over the past year, consumers may be ready to accept 'healthy' confectionery. 'It all comes down to the taste trade-off and to the extent consumer awareness of obesity keeps up with the media profile of the issue,' argues Chris Wood, chief executive of Corporate Edge.
Nestle Rowntree will not be conducting any advertising or promotion for the low-carb Kit Kat or Rolos, leading observers to conclude that it is planning a low-volume, high-margin business model for the products.
The stakes are high. Sales of original Kit Kat fell 5.4% last year to £116m, while Kit Kat Chunky slipped 18% to £50m. New managing director Chris White told Marketing in February that to mount a stronger challenge to Masterfoods and Cadbury, Nestle needed to give consumers a tangible reason to buy its products at higher prices.
The low-carb range fits well with this thinking - a two-finger Kit Kat will be priced 79p, compared with 20p for the full-carb original. But how many of those 3m on Atkins-style diets will be willing to pay this much for a product almost always bought on impulse?
Deirdre O'Donoghue, Nestle Rowntree's head of brand marketing, points out that the products will only be stocked in retailers that have a health and wellbeing products section. Low-carb confectionery will already be on sale at these outlets, and the prices can be seen in context. 'Consumers following a low-carb diet tend not to shop in the confectionery aisle, so we don't see these products competing with their original versions,' she says.
US company Carbolite launched a range of low-carb chocolate in the UK in October last year, with distribution through Superdrug and sandwich chain Benjys. At £1.25, its bars are significantly more expensive than the low-carb Kit Kat, as are the recently launched Go Lower bars (£1.49) and Atkins Advantage bar (£1.59).
O'Donoghue hopes Nestle's entry into low-carb confectionery will fuel growth in what is still a small sector. Similar sentiments were expressed by the firm's coffee marketers about its entry into the small, but growing, fair trade market. The signs are that, under White, Nestle is serious about offering UK consumers something worth the extra expense.
DATA FILE - THE ATKINS EFFECT
Coca-Cola: Launched low-carb cola called C2 in the US and Japan last week.
Nestle: Will introduce low-carb Rolos and Kit Kats in the UK in mid-July.
Tiffin Bites: The small Indian fast-food chain's low-carb meal has been its best seller and has generated most of its PR.
SABMiller: The Miller beer brand has been resuscitated after advertising for Miller Lite focused on its low carbohydrate content. Full-year profits, reported last week, rose by 50% partly because of this success.
Unilever: A fall in sales of its Slimfast range was blamed on the growing influence of Atkins-style diets.
Krispy Kreme: Claimed a profit warning last month was the result of people avoiding carbohydrates in its doughnuts.