WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED

Medically directed foods are proliferating at the shelf, but many retailers are choosing to mainstream these items rather than expand "dietetic" sections to accommodate them.While the number of diabetics and hypertensives is increasing, today's more holistic approach to disease management encourages consumers to stop looking for a magic bullet in the grocery aisle and instead change their eating habits

Medically directed foods are proliferating at the shelf, but many retailers are choosing to mainstream these items rather than expand "dietetic" sections to accommodate them.

While the number of diabetics and hypertensives is increasing, today's more holistic approach to disease management encourages consumers to stop looking for a magic bullet in the grocery aisle and instead change their eating habits and lifestyles. As a result, the definition of medically directed foods has changed, as well as the way these foods are merchandised.

For example, as reported in SN, a number of supermarket chains, including Jewel Osco, Melrose Park, Ill., and King Kullen Grocery Co., Westbury, N.Y., are conducting store tours for diabetics that teach customers how to choose healthy foods from every section of the store.

On a store tour with King Kullen's Layne Lieberman-Anapol, SN observed the nutritionist point out the dietetic section, but tell consumers that they didn't have to eat diabetic products. Rather, they should monitor carbohydrate consumption, she said, eat from all the food groups and exercise.

Also as reported in SN, Irwin Simon, president of Hain Food Group, Uniondale, N.Y., said that as a category captain for medically directed foods, the company is working to reinvent the dietetic section in the supermarket as a better-for-you section, which would encompass Hain brands like Estee, Weight Watchers, Alba and Featherweight, as well as selected natural foods.

In a similar vein, retailers that SN spoke with are choosing to either integrate medically directed foods into the regular grocery set entirely, or integrate most of these items, while reserving a small section for selected dietetic foods.

Les Guyerman, buyer for Heinen's Fine Foods, an independent chain in the Cleveland metropolitan area, said that medically directed foods are totally integrated in his stores. "Foods are mixed in with others, according to their product type, because most customers will look for the item there.

"Customers can [better] compare the nutritional content, like sugar or sodium, to the "regular" [non-dietetic] variety," he said. He noted that Featherweight syrup, for example, would be right next to the regular syrup in the syrup section.

Bill Meade, grocery buyer for Heinen's, added that "Dietetic foods were in a special section, but now they're mixed in. The products now get better visibility as an alternative choice.

"Sales definitely increased as a result of this," he said. Meade added that Heinen's carries special dietary foods to meet a consumer's needs. The retailer will take product requests through its consumer affairs department. It also offers home delivery and a product catalog.

Heinen's is also participating in the M-Fit Nutrition Labeling program, developed by the University of Michigan Medical Center and implemented by University Hospitals Synergy, Cleveland.

This labeling program guides shoppers through the store and helps them choose foods lower in fat, cholesterol and sodium and high in dietary fiber. Items in the store are coded with diamond-shaped shelf markers; for example, green is for "best choice"; yellow stands for "acceptable choice"; and red is for "occasional choice."

The shelf markers are coordinated with the the M-Fit Grocery Shopping Guide, which lists more than 10,000 foods found in supermarkets, along with their ratings according to the M-Fit system.

Products are evaluated within each of the 31 product categories having their own criteria. The program, based on current recommendations for heart-healthy eating, does not bill itself as a prescription for anyone with serious health problems.

Meade noted that there will always be a need for dietetic products, but that companies must do a better job of marketing them.

"There are a lot of good products out there that people don't know about," he added, saying that sugar-free gums and soda pop sell well, as do canned fruits in light syrup, no-salt canned vegetables and other "lite" products.

Scolari's Food & Drug, Sparks, Nev., is another chain that is integrating the medically directed category.

Russ Hahn, buyer and merchandiser, said, "We're trying to integrate products like sweeteners, because people [with medical conditions] shop the whole store looking for regular items."

Nob Hill Foods, Gilroy, Calif., integrated dietetic products about two years ago and has done away with a separate section. According to Frank Masoni, schematics manager, the chain made this decision because most major brands are producing "health-modified" products.

"We no longer have products in a special section. There was no movement and that costs money," he said. "We blended them in-aisle, which boosted sales, because now the rent is absorbed by other neighbor products on the shelf."

He went on to say that some of the traditional lines of dietetic products were not extensive enough, and that their quality was not high. Major-brand companies are now creating better products in this category, he noted.

Ed Werstlein, vice president of purchasing and merchandising at Kienow's Food Stores, Portland, Ore., said that his stores maintain small, 8-foot sections for selections from Estee and Ensure, but that, in most cases, medically directed foods are integrated.

"The no-salt beans are in with the regular beans," he observed. "In the diet section, Ensure is the biggest seller."

Jim Olson, grocery manager for Lamb's Thriftway in Wilsonville, Ore., said that Estee and Featherweight were slow movers in his dietary section, which is about 4 feet long, so they were removed. The section now stocks Slim-Fast, Ensure and Weight Watchers products.

Olson noted that his best sales in the dietetic category are in candies, but these items are integrated into the regular set.

Lamb's Thriftway also takes customers' special requests. However, since there's a Rite-Aid next door, inquiries about dietary products are rare, he said.

No doubt, manufacturers will continue to introduce new products in the medically directed category, although not all their efforts succeed. As reported in SN, Campbell's Soup Co., Camden, N.J., had launched an ambitious, year-long test in the Ohio market of Intelligent Quisine, a mostly frozen, medically directed meal plan, but the line was discontinued this year because it did not meet business expectations.