When it comes to our dietary habits, we Americans know what's good for us. (And if we don't, you can bet someone is ready and waiting to tell us.) For example, we all know we should cut down on sugar and fat. But God help us, we love our desserts, our cakes and our cookies.

Our desire to eat right and still satisfy the craving for rich foods has led food makers to create snack/dessert products (and other items) with fat substitutes on the inside and bizarre labeling (97% Fat Free!) on the outside.

Though many of these products leave something to be desired - at least the ones I've sampled - Americans are buying them, according to the pilot wave of a new ongoing study of snacking habits.

The study, called "America's Sweet Tooth," is being conducted by The Research Advantage, Hawthorne, New York.

For the pilot wave, completed last summer, the firm conducted in-person interviews with 600 women in cities across the country who said they were the primary shoppers for their family. The women were asked about their recent purchases of desserts/sweets in five categories: cookies, crackers, cakes/snack cakes, ice cream, and soft frozen yogurt.

While this preliminary round of the study didn't delve into consumption of low fat/low cholesterol products by category, the overall popularity of items making low fat/low cholesterol claims was substantial. "The acceptance was overwhelming," says Barry Wilensky, chairman of The Research Advantage.

Results from the interviews show that three-quarters of the households said they purchase snack items that are labeled "low fat" and/or "low cholesterol."

Of that group, nearly one-third said they purchased these products because of package labeling; less than one-fifth purchased them because they are available. One half said they purchased the items for a combination of both reasons.

Some other findings:

Respondents said they purchased more crackers and soft frozen yogurt in the past year, fewer cookies, cakes/snacks, less ice cream.

Soft frozen yogurt showed largest usage gains over the past year. The women said they had used more of it in the past year across all regions. In this category, TCBY had a strong presence in all four regions, as did Dannon and Colombo.

Purchase patterns differ depending on the region. For example, the study found that cookies are most popular in the South, and they are least popular in the West.

Ice cream and crackers are popular across all regions. Cakes and snack cakes are most popular in the Mid-West and South, and less popular on the coasts. Soft frozen yogurt is most popular in the East.

Keebler and Nabisco are the top two brands in the cookie category. Strong regional brand differences existed for each of the categories. For example, Pepperidge Farm was strong in the East and West, Mrs. Fields was strong in the West and almost non-existent in the South.

Regional brands

Wilensky says the presence of regional brands in every category makes it clear that marketers need to think of their competition on a market by market basis. "You need to look at competition on a regional basis. For example, in the cakes/snack cakes category, Friehofer's and Drake's are strongly East Coast brands and I'm sure that they represent competition to the national brands in the East. They won't be a factor in the Midwest, South, or West, but there will be other brands in those regions that are just as strong."

A number of changes have been made for the current wave of the study, which is now in the field. The impact of low fat/low cholesterol items will be measured in each category through "share of stomach." The sample size and the brand list will increase, and new markets will be added. In response to client requests, source of purchase will be tracked, in part to gauge the importance of non-traditional stores such as warehouse outlets and shopper's clubs. In addition, some questions will be included to measure the impact of the recession on snack consumption.