Meet the Supermarket Dietitian

Grocers turn to the experts to support healthy eating.

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America, as you know, has a health problem. We're fat and worried about it and waking up to the forces that got us here: cheap, processed food, an environment that promotes sedentary living, sweeping social changes that speed the pace of life and leave less time for home-cooked meals, and so on.

[See Why We're So Fat: What's Behind the Latest Obesity Rates.]

As a result, our nation is obsessed with food—hungry for the know-how to eat well and stay healthy amid so many demands on our time and money. These questions play out every day for everyone, but perhaps nowhere more clearly than in our supermarkets, where customers try to make sense of the barrage of new products and various health claims. There's gluten-free this and hormone-free that and free-range eggs from humanely-raised chicken. And when it comes to organic, well, how organic? Is it healthier and more environmentally friendly to go with the wild-caught fish or one that's sustainably farmed—and anyway, what does that even mean?

If you feel confused, you have a right to be.

Grocers know this and are responding in several ways, key among them: employing dietitians. And that means that supermarkets are starting to change vastly. They are storehouses for food, yes, but also education. Many have taken on a new role to advance healthier eating, working with dietitians to reach out to their staff with wellness programs, for example, and team up with store pharmacists to help individual customers manage diabetes or heart health.

"American consumers are connecting health and wellness to their diets," says Robert Vosburgh, group editor of Supermarket News, a weekly trade magazine for the food industry, and editor of SN Whole Health, a supplement on health and wellness. "With the obesity epidemic and diabetes, a lot of the focus is switching into the supermarket, where people buy food, and so the dietitians likewise are moving from the hospital and the clinical settings" to supermarkets, where they may work on a corporate, regional, or store level. About five years ago, the trend of supermarkets employing dietitians "really took off," Vosburgh says. These days, it's becoming routine. "Consumers are beginning to expect some kind of educational outreach from their retailer."

[Read The Working Parent Dilemma: Less Time for Healthy Meals?]

Findings from the Shopping for Health survey, an annual poll by the Food Marketing Institute, indicate that consumers want help finding nutritious foods, says Cathy Polley, vice president of health and wellness for the industry trade association and executive director of its foundation. Citing data from the group's latest survey, she noted that 64 percent of shoppers read nutrition labels, and 30 percent are willing to pay more for organic products. In such an environment, dietitians "can really play an important role in helping them sift through that information and find what's most appropriate for themselves and their families."

Among the association's 1,500 food retailers and wholesalers, 85 percent employ dietitians at the corporate level, half employ dietitians on a regional level, and 33 percent of all stores boast an on-site dietitian, Polley says.

[Read 5 Great Diets for the Whole Family.]

The programs and services vary by store. Popular measures include store tours and helping individuals shop according to their medical conditions, as well as cooking classes and providing healthy recipes. Some of the more in-depth services for individuals or businesses may require a fee, but many services are free of charge.

For example, Pennsylvania-based Weis Markets offers free "mystery tours" for kids in second through fourth grades, says Karen Buch, the chain's director of lifestyle initiatives. Kids get equipped with a plastic neon fedora, clue pad, and magnifying glass and venture through the store to determine which foods will restore energy to the listless Weis Markets mascot. The larger mission: to educate kids about nutrition in the aim to end childhood obesity.