While in the army, dietitian Leah McGrath would hear from soon-to-be-discharged patients, “I wish that you could help me [food] shop.” During her seven-year tenure as dietitian for 200-store Ingles Markets, McGrath has been doing just that.
“I get several calls and emails from shoppers [some from states where Ingles doesn't operate stores] on a daily basis,” said McGrath. “Today a mom who had a child with nut allergies wanted to know if a specific product was safe to eat; I got another question from a shopper whose son wanted to know if he should buy protein powder to build muscle.”
Such dialogue is becoming more common. Currently every major national supermarket chain and most regional chains are putting corporate dietitians to work in at least some stores, according to the Food Marketing Institute. More than one-third (38.6%) of grocers surveyed as part of FMI's Supermarket Pharmacy Trends 2007 study reported offering nutritional counseling to shoppers.
Among them is 225-store Hy-Vee, which makes dietitians available to shoppers in about half of its stores. It also invites visitors to its website to email questions to its dietitians or search a database of responses to frequently asked questions such as, “I'm painfully stuffed, what can I do?”
Other retailers invite shoppers to consult their dietitians during special events. As part of its recent weeklong outreach to customers who may have been unknowingly suffering from celiac disease, Wegmans had dietitians on hand in 25 locations to provide information about gluten intolerance. Big Y invites website visitors to sign up to engage in one-on-one chats with its corporate dietitian.
Shoppers seem to be heeding their advice.
Although the news media continue to be America's No. 1 source of information on health and nutrition, health professionals still top the list as the most influential.
Just over three-fourths (76%) of Americans polled by the International Food Information Council said that dietitians influence their decision to try a food or food component either “moderately” or to a “great extent.”
Healthier shoppers make for happier grocers.
“The healthier the shopper, the longer they live and the longer they'll shop,” said Dagmar Farr, group vice president of legislative and consumer affairs for FMI. “This is what shoppers want, and it's in your best interest to plan it into your corporate strategy.”
FMI is working to promote successful relationships between retailers and dietitians with its manual “The Supermarket and Nutrition Professionals: A Strategic Alliance,” Farr said.