In the ABCs of healthy eating, N is for "nutritionist." As consumers become more aware about nutrition and manufacturers strive to meet their demands by offering scores of low-calorie, low-sodium, low-fat and fat-free foods, the role of the supermarket nutritionist becomes more important than ever.
To further examine the role of the nutritionist in the supermarket, SN interviewed nutritionists at five cutting-edge chains around the country.
Nutritionists at the surveyed chains are much more than public relations figureheads. They help consumers create individualized diets, give store tours, publish newsletters and columns, and help develop the nutrition information panels used on private-label products and shelf tags.
"The nutrition awareness of consumers is growing," says Layne Lieberman-Anapol, director of nutrition
at King Kullen Grocery Co., Westbury, N.Y. "They are looking for more information and ways to use the information easily, and they are trying to get the information from reliable sources."
"Today there are a lot more choices and they are integrated throughout the store, so people have many, many, many more options readily available than they used to," said Margaret McEwan, vice president of consumer services at Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass.
"But if you are on a prescribed diet, it is very difficult to fulfill your needs with convenient foods. When people are on very restrictive diets, like lactose intolerance, glucose intolerance or kosher certification, we will conduct research for that individual customer," McEwan said.
"Our challenge is to alleviate the misconception that one needs to shop at a specialty store to find healthy foods," said Cheryl Robertson, manager of consumer services at Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill. "We have a new diabetes program that we piloted last fall in 25 stores and expanded to 43 stores this spring," said Janet Tenney, manager, nutrition programs, Giant Food, Landover, Md. "When participants first came into the store, they met with a pharmacist and then a nutritionist. They had a store tour where they would go down the aisles and examine the various foods." At Tidyman's Inc., Greenacres, Wash., "we are teaching comprehensive classes in our stores," said Karen Ferguson, health educator. "We offer body composition testing. Also included are low-fat cooking classes, recipe modification, label reading in the grocery store, and how to put all of that into a plan." As reported, Tidyman's has developed a shelf-tag program called See The Light!, in which every food product in the store is given a shelf tag reminiscent of a traffic light: green if it contains 30% or less fat, yellow if it has 31% to 49% fat, and red if it is more than 50% fat.
Here's what supermarket nutritionists had to say:
director of nutrition
King Kullen Grocery Co.
My role is to answer questions and be a contact person for consumers' issues regarding food and nutrition. I then use that information as a liaison back to the people here in King Kullen's offices.
Consumer contact is done through an 800 number, and we get a lot of calls. I have a newsletter and a column in our circular. Also, a lot of people write in and I do media events as well. We're doing this as a service to the consumer, and we don't measure our results in terms of sales dollars.
I work with all of our departments, from produce to frozen, where we have organic frozen foods. Within each department it is actually very easy to integrate products that are geared toward health and nutrition. But I'm not here to police the customer and say what is good or bad. That is not my role, and I can't pass judgment like that. Eating and diet is a balance, and you have to realize that you are dealing with a large variety of people in the consumer base with different interests and different ethnic backgrounds.
Tidyman's Greenacres, Wash.
The public awareness has definitely driven the manufacturers to consider health aspects, and it is a very high priority on their list of new foods.
At Tidyman's, our nutrition awareness program is currently centered around our See The Light! campaign.
We took our national statistics from FMI research and found out that 80% to 90% of consumers are very interested in nutrition, primarily fat. The percentage decreases in terms of who is actually acting on that interest. We figured that some of the reason for that discrepancy is that it is too hard to make a decision.
Every single thing that has a nutrition fact label on it is paired with the traffic light fat symbol right on the shelf tag. Not only do they give information about the product, but the convenience factor of being able to compare similar products on the shelf instantly has really been the benefit.
Our plan is patent-pending right now, but we would like to help other retailers. We are developing a complete, in-store signage program for retailers. The intent of the program is to provide such service that people will go out of their way to come to our stores. We did a three-month awareness campaign, a TV commercial for the campaign and a questionnaire of 400 call-in responses to judge the success of the commercial. The awareness was absolutely fabulous. And we have not received one negative comment from the manufacturer and distributor side.
In-store we are marketing See The Light! with Pyramid of Life booklets, our monthly newsletters which will debut in October. We also train teen-agers to deliver our program through local schools. They are called the Light Squad, and they reached 12,000 kids this year.
manager, nutrition programs
I've been the nutritionist at Giant for over 20 years. In my position I answer questions, letters, telephone calls, etc., as well as providing nutrition information through booklets, pamphlets, etc.
Since 1978, we have done some major programs with the federal government to determine whether point-of-sale nutrition information would actually change people's purchasing behavior, which it does.
We are a customer service, but programs like our diabetes tours have a definite effect. We were looking to improve Giant's image with the diabetes population and we have begun that process. We're looking at other things we can do, and yes, we are looking to change the situation on the bottom line in the long run.
In recent years we have also been concentrating on the new nutrition labels and the Food Guide Pyramid. The role of the nutritionist has been growing because of the label. I handled the coordination of all of our private label so that it got the nutrition facts label in time for the regulatory requirements. We were one of the first companies in the country to have a new nutrition facts label on the products. We started with them in March 1993.
VP, consumer services
East Bridgewater, Mass.
I'm responsible for consumer services and quality assurances, including our consumer information that we provide to customers about Shaw's. We also work with the different marketing departments in the company when they need to generate information for customers.
The other aspect of consumer relations is offering presentations to classrooms, senior citizens groups and even on cable TV. We did a whole show on how you can take the calories out of Thanksgiving dinner.
We try very hard to support just good, general nutrition; not limiting people in their choices, but being able to direct people to different foods they might be able to choose. We also have two registered dietitians on our staff.
We make a real attempt to meet the needs of the clientele of a particular store through a variety of different means. For example, just this past year we piloted the "To Your Health" program that was produced by FMI.
I'm also responsible for Shaw's private-label products and the food technologists who actually visit the plants where the food is produced to make sure that we are getting consistency of quality. Our department creates the nutrition labels. We are responsible for the accuracy of our information and assuring that we follow federal regulatory procedures for weight declarations, etc.
We have customer suggestion boxes and we find they work very well for us, along with a bimonthly newsletter which has been well received.
We're now in the process of composing better lists of foods that cross all sections for people that are on particular diets. This is not to prescribe them foods, but to lead them to foods they might not know that they could eat.
manager, consumer affairs
Dominick's Finer Foods
My role as a dietitian is the development of ongoing education programs, special events and to serve as a resource for the various store departments as they develop programs. I also review all of the nutrition facts labels for our private-label products.
Our programs include a children's nutrition store tour program, which uses dinosaurs to train about nutrition. It has been very well received and in each of the past two years we've had about 10,000 children go through the program. Recently we introduced a newsletter called Fresh Report, which goes out monthly. We have 120,000 copies distributed in-store. Fresh Report has a heavy focus on nutrition, and encompasses the entire store.
I am available to answer questions from any of our customers who might phone in or write.
The role of the nutritionist is growing and becoming more vital. Consumer interest in nutrition, as well as their level of sophistication regarding nutrition issues, will continue to grow. And having a nutrition expert on hand to help ensure that accurate nutrition information is available for customers is very important.
The success of our programs is difficult to measure in dollars and cents, but we do receive a lot of compliments from our customers, teachers, health care professionals regarding the program.