Retailers have long known that healthy foods can be a tough sell -- inferior taste, high prices and lack of easy preparation methods are typical customer complaints. But that doesn't mean supermarkets can't make money by offering healthy food products as part of their total store mix.The secret to successful programs lies with sourcing the best items in each category and developing merchandising strategies

Retailers have long known that healthy foods can be a tough sell -- inferior taste, high prices and lack of easy preparation methods are typical customer complaints. But that doesn't mean supermarkets can't make money by offering healthy food products as part of their total store mix.

The secret to successful programs lies with sourcing the best items in each category and developing merchandising strategies that highlight and reinforce taste and convenience, retailers and industry consultants told SN.

"[Simply] using words like 'healthy' in signs and ads has been the kiss of death in retail and in food service," said Neil Stern, partner in McMillan/Doolittle, Chicago. "Taste is still the No. 1 reason [consumers] use for buying food."

Nutritional foods can be tasty, though in many cases it is up to the retailer to demonstrate this.

That's where sampling and demo activity are especially helpful, operators stress. Shoppers entering the store can be diverted by the aroma of cooking food, a gathering crowd or a friendly invitation by a store associate to taste a sample.

"It helps when a customer can walk in the store and actually watch a person cook something and be able to ask questions and find out how simple it is," said Dave Barber, executive chef for meat and seafood operations for Lunds-Byerly's, Edina, Minn. "If they ask questions, they find out that it's not magic -- it's something anybody can do."

Barber and others who specialize in the protein departments just got more ammunition in their efforts to sell beef, with the release of a new study showing that the risk of heart disease can actually be lowered with a diet that includes 6 ounces of lean red meat consumed five or more days a week.

The study, "Comparison of the Effects of Lean Red Meat vs. Lean White Meat on Serum Lipid Levels Among Free-Living Persons With Hypocholesterolemia," was published in the June 28 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine. The bottom-line conclusion of the research is that lean red meat is interchangeable with lean chicken and fish, with regard to their influence on blood cholesterol levels.

Attracting customers to healthy foods is much easier for retailers like Mustard Seed Market & Cafe. The Akron, Ohio-based store started out as a natural-food purveyor and has become a destination for nutritious groceries and prepared foods.

"We are all about healthy choices, to start with," said Carol Moore, retail food-service manager. "That is the premise of our store."

Sampling and demos are an important part of Mustard Seed's philosophy. According to Moore, the events help bridge the gap between what the store has to offer and what the customer is looking for.

"Part of the reason we are so involved in demos is that they give us the opportunity to tell our shoppers that this might be a better choice," she said. "All of our [department] managers are very committed to the store's standards and mission, and live interaction is the perfect platform to get the message across."

Preparation is only one factor, Moore continued. Timeliness is also critical. For example, later this month the store will host a blueberry festival during the height of the season, featuring organically grown fruit in a number of recipes from each department.

An early survey of managers revealed a menu that included blueberry cakes and muffins from bakery, a blueberry-infused beverage from the juice bar and blueberry-chicken salad from the deli, according to Moore.

The store's single largest effort, however, comes in the fall, when thoughts often turn to food in preparation for the upcoming holidays. According to Moore, Mustard Seed's annual holiday taste fair -- scheduled for Nov. 6 this year -- has grown to become one of the store's busiest traffic days.

"It all began when we wanted to introduce people to our free-range turkeys," recalled Moore. "The event took off, and we've added products over the years to the point where everyone is involved on several levels. It really generates publicity and sales."

At Lunds-Byerly's, Barber stressed that live interaction between associates and customers is the primary component of a successful healthy-foods program in the protein departments. Demos, sampling and knowledgeable service can "interrupt" the shopper and call attention to the items.

"We demo probably four days a week out of all our stores, and we bring in vendors who have the knowledge of their particular products to help us out with this," he said.

In these instances, pamphlets, recipe cards and posters might best be confined to a supporting role, because they are more passive in nature and are effective only if an interested customer specifically seeks the information out.

Currently, Lunds-Byerly's is conducting a chainwide grilling demonstration at all 19 units, where the focus is on wholesome cooking techniques. The touring promotion features actual grilling out in front of each unit. According to Barber, the foods include vegetables from produce, breads from the bakery (for tapinades) and choices from the retailer's popular Chef's Market ready-to-cook protein line.

Introduced three years ago, the value-added meats include beef, poultry, pork and lamb. The cuts, available in the service meat case, are premarinated or stuffed, according to the type of meat. Barber said the recipes for the ingredients are formulated to minimize the amount of additives and preservatives.

For example, the sun-dried-tomato marinade consists simply of olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, onions and herbs, he said.

Another selection is a pork chop stuffed with apricots, apples, golden raisins, croutons, white wine and spices. There's even a vegetarian option -- a large mushroom stuffed with ricotta and Parmesan cheese, spinach, garlic bread crumbs and spices.

Here, the preparation is just as healthy as it would be if made at home. In some cases, it's even healthier, he noted.

"Healthy food wasn't what people were interested in back when I cooked in restaurants -- they were going for special occasions," he said. "Today, we bring in recipes that are specifically more healthy."

Chef's Market, Lunds-Byerly's answer to the health/convenience equation, is getting a big boost these days. The line is growing to include seafood items by the end of the summer, and the retailer is busy setting up a whole-health umbrella that incorporates aspects of the program in each department, as needed.

Chef's Market products that have the proper ingredients might get some sort of on-pack label to indicate that it's part of the whole-health program, said Barber.

At Mustard Seed, the retailer's unique market position doesn't make healthy foods any easier to sell. The store has to maintain strict standards and work diligently to protect its reputation, since virtually everything in the store has a close connection to healthy eating, she said.

"We are very careful about our ingredients, and have high ingredient standards," said Moore. "We publish them [for in-store customer review], and the majority of the people who shop here do it by choice because of the [health] issue. They know they can buy organic produce, meat that is naturally raised and hormone-free, or prepared foods that are [100% vegan]."

With more and more people eating out or relying on take-home meals, there is a renewed focus on the nutritious quality of those foods. According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, Americans are indeed eating out more often and, in the process, sabotaging the nutritional quality of their diet.

The study, "Away-From-Home Foods Increasingly Important to Quality of American Diet," indicates that the frequency of dining out has risen by more than two-thirds over the past two decades. In 1977-'78, Americans ate 16% of all meals and snacks away from home. By 1995, that number had risen to 26%. Total food expenditures for food eaten away from home had risen to 39% in 1996; that's in contrast to 26% in 1970.

The research shows that while the nutritional quality of foods consumed by Americans has improved overall, food prepared and eaten at home generally contains less fat and more fiber and calcium than fare consumed away from home.

Away-from-home foods provided 34% of total caloric intake in 1995, nearly double the 19% in 1977-'78. A full 38% of fat intake came from away-from-home foods in 1995, compared to 18% in 1997-'78, according to the ERS data.

The fat content of foods Americans consume has declined overall, but the drop is greater in foods prepared and eaten at home. In 1977-'78, fat from both home and away-from-home food comprised 41% of calories consumed by Americans. By 1995, that percentage had declined to 31.5% of calories from home food; by contrast, it had only declined to 37.6% of calories from away-from-home food.

Home foods also typically had lower saturated fat than food eaten away from home, the study concluded. Between 1994 and 1995, saturated fat in home food continued to decline, while that in away-from-home food rose slightly.

What are the implications for supermarkets? Such data could provide a cue for them to tout the nutritional or home-style qualities of their foods, or at least to show they offer more that's good for you than a fast-food restaurant.

"Supermarkets should be talking about wholesomeness, and more about the food pyramid," said Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, Dayton, Ohio. "One study is not going to change the way people behave, but it does show us we have an opportunity to show people they have more [choices in assembling] a balanced meal."

At Mustard Seed, both the retail store and the cafe operation leverage their reputation as a healthy-food outlet by starting at the source of any food item: ingredients.

"Most everything we make is from scratch, because we can't get food, sauces, desserts and that sort of thing," said Moore. "Most of the [finished products] that are available to the retailer in food service contain chemicals, preservatives and things that our customers stay away from."

For example, Mustard Seed offers store-made miso soup in the restaurant and the grab-and-go case adjacent to the deli; scratch macrobiotic cookies in the bakery; and "whole food" meals, made of rice or grain and vegetables.

"There's a major opportunity for supermarkets to promote what's good about what they're offering," said Stephan Kouzomis, president of Louisville, Ky.-based Entrepreneurial Consulting. "It could be a point of differentiation in advertising and signage."

Solganik agreed, saying that supermarkets "aren't marketing the freshness of their products enough."