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.
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."
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.
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.
The tours are just one part of the company's Healthy Living initiative, which features a Healthy Bites magazine and a website with details on special diets, instructional video recipes, a blog on healthy living, and a contact form to ask questions to one of the company's three staff dietitians. "With this economy, people's food dollars only stretch so far ... they see food as something within their area of control," Buch says. As the trend continues to gain momentum, supermarket dietitians are coming together to navigate this niche and learn, for example, about making the business case for healthy foods.
Earlier this year a new professional group, the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance, was formed to help support the more than 400 retail registered dietitians in this effort.
"The name of the game for all of us is to try to be doing things that help healthier foods sell better and then, at the end of the day, these companies say, 'Oh my gosh. I'm making more money on my healthier foods. I better do more of those,'" says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways, a nonprofit that draws on culinary traditions to promote healthy eating. Oldways recently held its third annual conference for supermarket dietitians.
Food and Culinary Professionals, a division of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, also has a group dedicated to the work of supermarket dietitians. "Their vision is to optimize the nations health through food and nutrition, and what better place than through the supermarket?" says Buch, the incoming chair of that group.
"There are no concrete numbers at this time regarding the influx of dietitians in the supermarket space, because those programs can look any number of different ways," says Lauren Hefner, communications director for the National Grocers Association. "For some larger operations, it can mean having a dietitian in each store available to help consumers with their dietary choices, shopping habits, healthier decision making, etc. For smaller companies and single-store operators, it could just mean having printed pamphlets and resources available to consumers, or having a contract dietitian available on a retainer basis for guidance."
Hefner says that the trend is driven by consumers, who want "to feel like their store understands their individual needs." For its part, stores benefit through shopper loyalty and positive feedback, for example. "But really it's about providing a service to their communities and customers to set themselves apart and address consumer needs and wants."
One of the leading supermarkets in this realm is Hy-Vee, an Iowa-based chain that houses a dietitian in nearly every one of its stores. The company's robust efforts in nutrition include special healthy check-out lanes, where trail mix and fruit replace the usual spots for candy; end-of-the-aisle displays on the featured healthy food of the month; and signage featuring the local dietitian's tips to eat well.
"We do know there is a return on investment, we just don't know the effect overall," says Hy-Vee corporate dietitian Rochelle Gilman. However, Hy-Vee has seen an uptick in sales around certain healthy promotions, and "it sure does help with customer loyalty," she says.
For its part, Weis Markets has seen a 20 percent rate of redemption on the coupons included in its mystery tours goodie bags. "It's a win-win for the parents, for the students, and also for the grocer," Buch says.