An integral part of the West Valley Biggest Loser weight-loss program is a store tour at Bashas'. Stephanie Fogelson, founder of the 12-week program, teamed with the Chandler, Ariz., chain to give her clients hands-on experience on how to shop for food. We take them off the fast-food lines and into the grocery store, Fogelson said. The store tours help them develop a [healthy] relationship with food.

An integral part of the West Valley Biggest Loser weight-loss program is a store tour at Bashas' [4].

Stephanie Fogelson, founder of the 12-week program, teamed with the Chandler, Ariz., chain to give her clients hands-on experience on how to shop for food.

“We take them off the fast-food lines and into the grocery store,” Fogelson said. “The store tours help them develop a [healthy] relationship with food.”

During the tours, Barbara Ruhs, Bashas' corporate registered dietitian, emphasizes eating the right foods, not just reducing food intake.

“What's happening is that people are not just conscious of calories; they're hyper-conscious of calories,” she said.

So while she, of course, emphasizes the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables, she also points out other healthier eating habits, such as the importance of having a high-fiber breakfast by eating foods like Kashi cereal, and choosing tuna in water vs. oil, and whole grain pasta rather than traditional pasta.

While store tours are nothing new, themed events like the weight-loss tour at Bashas' are becoming more commonplace as retailers cater to those on special diets.

The right kind of foods can help battle everything from arthritis to diabetes to cancer, according to Ruhs.

“Food can treat practically anything,” Ruhs said.

Hiller's Markets, Southfield, Mich., is another retailer that uses store tours to cater to those on special diets. The retailer typically hosts one themed store tour a month. Up to about 40 people typically attend.

It does not have registered dietitians on staff, so it brings in doctors from nearby Beaumont Hospital to host the tours.

“We felt it was important to have an expert there to field questions,” said Justin Hiller, company vice president.

The goal of the tours is to help shoppers learn how to better manage their condition by eating the right kinds of foods.

“We want to make the shopping experience easier for people with ailments,” Hiller said.

During the tours, participants are shown alternatives to mainstream items they would typically need to avoid.

“We open their eyes,” Hiller said. “Some people don't realize how healthy or unhealthy some things in their diets are.”

Hiller's tours cater to those with conditions like high blood pressure and celiac disease. It even hosted a free health tour for cancer patients last year. An oncologist and oncology dietitian talked about coping with symptoms like loss of appetite and nausea, and how to choose the most nutrient-rich and energizing foods.

A store tour on nut allergies was so well attended that Hiller's realized it needed to do more for those who can't eat nuts. Soon after the tour, it dedicated endcaps to nut-free foods in several stores. The sections not only help those with the condition, but also others who are searching for options to take to childcare centers or schools that have nut-free policies in place.

Hiller's had personal reasons for scheduling store tours on how to choose low-sodium products. Last year, company Chief Executive Officer Jim Hiller wasn't feeling well. After purchasing a blood pressure meter, he learned his numbers were high at 145 over 90. (Normal is 120 over 80.)

Along with going on medication, he started reducing his sodium intake.

“I've always read food labels because keeping the fat out has been my longtime focus,” Hiller wrote in a blog about his condition. “Now that I've moved down a few lines on the nutrition labels, I'm astonished at how much sodium is in just about everything.”

While the recommended sodium daily intake is 2,400 milligrams, someone with his condition should eat half that amount. So he directed his staff to seek out sodium-free and low-sodium items in every category and visibly mark them.

“We must make it easy for people who have high blood pressure, or love someone who does, to cut out the salt,” Hiller wrote in the blog.

The retailer has since brought in hundreds of low-sodium items, even soup and lunch meats. To highlight the items, it created shelf tags that picture a slash mark through a saltshaker.

“Hiller's is becoming a sea of low-sodium tags,” he wrote.

United Supermarkets [5], Lubbock, Texas, is developing store tours geared to a variety of health conditions, according to its corporate dietitian, Dr. Tyra Carter.

“We want to address dietary patterns to control, manage or prevent certain conditions,” she said.

Holding store tours for those with chronic medical conditions make perfect sense for supermarkets, said Carter.

“For many diseases, food is the main treatment to keep the condition under control,” she said.

While this is especially true for conditions like celiac disease, it also applies to diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems. Take diabetes. By manipulating the type of food that goes into the body, people put less stress on the pancreas, thereby decreasing sensitivity to insulin, she said.

One of United's forthcoming store tours will address how to shop for foods that have high NuVal scores. Introduced last spring at United, NuVal is a nutritional food scoring system.

NuVal scores are calculated based upon beneficial nutrients per calories in a single serving. Higher scores identify products with less sugar, less salt and fewer unfavorable oils; they contain more fiber from whole grains as well as vitamins and minerals from fruits and nuts. Fiber has the greatest impact on increasing scores. Cookies typically have a score ranging from 1 to 40.

Examples of higher-scoring cookies include Murray Sugar Free Chocolate Bites (36), Nabisco Chocolate Teddy Grahams (25) and Nabisco Reduced Fat Oreos (22). Regular Nabisco Oreos score a 12.

The tours will launch in United's Market Street units within the next few months, but will eventually expand into other banners.

Store tours are used to promote so-called “Go Foods” at Heinen's Fine Foods, Cleveland. These are foods and beverages selected by The Cleveland Clinic, an area non-profit medical center, as healthy.

To apply for a “Go Foods” green-light sticker, a food must contain:

  • Minimal saturated fat
  • No trans fat
  • Minimal added sugars and syrups
  • 100% whole grain
  • Minimal sodium

Registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick of The Cleveland Clinic has been featured on television news stations giving tours of Heinen's about Go Foods.

Even kids are getting in on the store tour craze. Weis Markets [6], Sunbury, Pa., launched Weis Mystery Tours, a new field trip program that helps third- and fourth-graders learn about the fundamentals of nutrition.

During the 90-minute tours students play the role of Weis detectives searching the store for clues to solve the Case of the Missing Energy. The program reinforces USDA's My-Pyramid nutrition principles with a focus on the importance of making sensible food and exercise choices. Kids are outfitted with detective gear, given healthy snacks and take-home packs.

Some store tours educate those how to ward off illness. For instance, several retailers held store tours last month to promote Med Month, a month-long celebration by The Mediterranean Foods Alliance, an Oldways Preservation Trust educational program that promotes Mediterranean foods.

Traditional Mediterranean meals are considered to be healthy because they're based on fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes; an abundance of bread, pasta, rice, couscous and other grain foods, especially whole grains; nuts and peanuts; extra virgin olive oil; fish, poultry and lean red meat; cheese and yogurt; and moderate amounts of wine.

At Giant Eagle [7], Pittsburgh, dietitians in 14 Giant stores walked shoppers through the stores and highlight a variety of Mediterranean foods, including hummus, olive oil, nuts and Greek yogurt, according to Caroline Whitby, corporate dietitian and manager of dietitian initiatives at Giant Eagle.

“Some of our stores have olive oil and vinegar bars, so shoppers actually got to sample different types of olive oil,” Whitby told SN. “It was experiential learning.”

Giant Eagle has also hosted themed tours for those with celiac disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

“Including or limiting certain foods can prevent a visit to the doctor's office,” she said.

Oldways helps retailers plan store tours on Mediterranean foods and whole grains by providing them with informational and marketing materials.

It also connects them with local hospitals so that they can bring in medical professionals who are well versed in specific topics, according to Georgia Orcutt, Oldways' program manager.

“By partnering with a hospital, the hospital almost owns the tour,” Orcutt said. “This takes a lot of stress off supermarket dietitians, who may have limited knowledge of certain medical conditions.”