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healthy eating

Jos Louis and May West sit ontop of a May West Box in Montreal, July 13, 2012.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Jos. Louis's homeland is losing its sweet tooth.

Yes, the Montreal streets are roiling with unrest, the provincial government mired in corruption charges. But below the political radar, a quiet revolution is under way in the groceries and kitchens of the province: Quebeckers have joined the popular shift to fitness and healthy eating habits, and in the process their passion for sugar-laced snack cakes is cooling.

Montreal-based cheese and dairy giant Saputo Inc. – owner of the Vachon bakery – has taken a $125-million fourth-quarter writedown related to "stagnating growth in market-wide snack-cake sales."

Local legends like Jos. Louis and May West, part of the famous Vachon line of snack cakes, are losing some of their allure as francophones make healthier lifestyle choices, helping to close the life-expectancy gap with their anglophone neighbours, who traditionally have had more balanced diets and lower rates of smoking and drinking.

"We may be losing a part of our culture," said Suzie Pellerin, head of the Quebec Coalition on Weight-Related Problems, "but I hope it's to make us healthier."

The slump in snack-cake sales in Quebec has been nudged along by the provincial government, which in 2007 set up a healthy-eating program for all public primary schools that includes strongly discouraging packing processed snack foods in children's lunch boxes. All hospitals and health-care facilities have until next year to ban snack cakes and other junk food completely.

It's a blow to the homegrown Vachon bakery, which has a lock on the Quebec market and bills itself as the snack-cake leader across Canada.

The popularity of the chocolate-covered, cream-filled desserts – in tandem with a penchant for Pepsi over Coca-Cola – became so ingrained in the Québécois imagination that satirical TV comedy troupe Rock et Belles Oreilles poked fun at the average working-class stiff who is happiest when he has his tabloid newspaper, bag of salt-and-vinegar chips, jumbo Pepsi and box of Jos. Louis.

"Vachon is part of Quebec culture to a certain extent," said Carole Rivard-Lacroix, a consultant and Quebec strategist for Rank Research Group and a former Vachon executive. "The name has a strong cultural resonance that used to be so positive. But today it's unfortunately not associated with healthy eating."

Guylaine Laperrière, a resident of the Plateau Mont-Royal in the heart of Montreal, says it was inevitable that the cakes lose their appeal at some point. "We ate them at home when I was young, but it's not a product I think about much any more," said the 52-year-old chemist and mother. "I think it's outdated. It's more of a nostalgia thing now."

Indeed, Saputo recently revamped the look of its May West packaging, giving it a retro spin with the image of a voluptuous '40s-era pinup girl holding one of the cakes in her upraised hand.

"The strategy consists in giving the May West cake a true personality, with a wink to the legacy of the brand," Olivier Chevillot, creative director at Pigeon Branding + Design in Montreal – which did the makeover – writes on the firm's website. The snack's name was inspired by curvy American movie star Mae West.

In fact, the history of Vachon cakes reaches back to the 1920s, when Rose-Anna Vachon and husband, Joseph-Arcade Vachon, sold the family farm and bought a bakery in the town of Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce, south of Quebec City. Over time, Mrs. Vachon's cakes became hugely popular. Jos. Louis refers to two of the Vachon sons, Joseph and Louis, not to Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxer.

Saputo was hailed as the saviour of the Vachon bakery 13 years ago when it swooped in and prevented a U.S. bakery giant from taking it over by submitting a higher bid of $283-million. Two years ago, Saputo president and chief executive officer Lino Saputo Jr. told shareholders at the annual meeting that the company thought diversification via the Vachon purchase was a good idea at the time, but he likely wouldn't make that move in today's health-conscious climate.

Lionel Ettedgui, head of Saputo's bakery division, insists the Vachon cakes still have a long life ahead of them. "It's true that the trends are evolving, but there will always be a place for the snack cake that represents a bit of an indulgence, a treat. We're innovating with new products for a growing snack market that includes more products that are a little more nutritious," he said, including cereal and energy bars.

Eric Blais, founder of Headspace Marketing Inc. in Toronto, says the Québécois palate has evolved considerably over the past decade or so.

"There's a growing pride in products that come from the ' terroir,' " he said, referring to the explosion of local foods such as Charlevoix lamb and artisanal cheeses. "I'd rather be known for that than for a snack cake."