Consumers are spurning chocolate biscuit bars for healthier options, according to exclusive research for The Grocer.

TNS Worldpanel data shows that, for the first time, healthier biscuits have overtaken chocolate biscuit bars in terms of value to become the sector's biggest category.

The healthy sector grew 9.4% in value to £352m in the year to 15 July, while sales of chocolate biscuit bars slumped by 6.5% to £334m. This was in a biscuit market that grew 2.7% to £1.8bn over the period.

TNS said the shift was caused by healthy-eating messages hitting home combined with a lack of innovation in chocolate biscuit bars. Cereal bars have proved particularly popular and now make up 80% of the healthy category.

Further evidence of shoppers becoming more diet-conscious is provided by cakes, which grew 3.6% to £1.03bn, driven by smaller, portion-controlled formats such as bars, up 17.2%, and slices, up 18%, as consumers turned away from whole cakes, down 0.5%.

Penny Hawley, director general of trade body the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Association, said the figures showed consumers were already making healthy choices, and manufacturers were meeting this demand.

"These figures show consumers want more wholesome or natural foods and manufacturers are responding," said Hawley, adding that further intervention by the government was unnecessary.

Consumers' growing preference for healthy products was not just illustrated by a desire for low-fat and low-sugar options, said Alistair McIntosh, sales and marketing manager at Taylors of Harrogate. The naturalness of ingredients was also a key driver.

"When it comes to health, consumers are interested in ingredient quality rather than low fat," he said. "If you're going to treat yourself, you may as well have something with really good, natural ingredients."

The FSA is currently putting the finishing touches to its strategy for cutting fat and energy consumption, which could include targets for reformulation.

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