Everyone knows that fruits and vegetables are good for you. And most nutritionists would argue that eating plenty of produce is a cornerstone of a healthy diet. The bad news is, many consumers still aren't eating enough fresh produce, and the prevalence of diabetes, obesity and other diet-related, chronic conditions continues to be an issue among American adults and children.
The good news is, many “better for you foods” have proven resilient during the recession, and some retailers are seeing a payoff from the time and resources they've devoted to health and nutrition education programs they offer to shoppers.
“Most retailers [are] really starting to get their dietitians involved in communicating a variety of health issues to their customers through newsletters, magazines and their websites,” said Bryant Wynes, senior executive of retail marketing for Produce for Better Health Foundation. “They're getting a lot of information out there.”
And eating right has remained a priority for many shoppers despite the difficult economy.
“People are more concerned about their health because obviously money is a little tighter, so preventative medicine is particularly important,” said Barbara Ruhs, registered dietitian for Bashas'.
Earlier this year, the Chandler, Ariz.-based grocer launched “Eat Smart,” a comprehensive nutrition program featuring a free newsletter and free nutritional cards focusing on healthy eating tips, as well as free monthly shopping tours and specially designated endcap displays featuring healthy products.
“Eat Smart” was created to complement the chain's 20-year-old “Health Styles” program, which offers customers cholesterol screenings, coronary risk assessments, allergy tests and other services in its pharmacies and in-store clinics.
“We figured it was only a natural addition to offer a nutrition component,” Ruhs said, explaining that by promoting better health through better dietary habits, Eat Smart is a preventative component of the Health Styles program.
“Obesity is a huge problem,” she added. “Arizona has some particularly poor statistics on health. We rank 19th nationally for diabetes and it's estimated that over 20% of our adults are obese. This mimics the rest of the country. Arizona has a lot of people who come here to escape the winter, so our snowbird population, which tends to be an older population, they're concerned about chronic disease prevention or chronic disease management. So, these are older people who have diabetes or high cholesterol.”
The bimonthly Eat Smart newsletter regularly highlights at least one or two produce items, Ruhs said. In addition, the produce section of the chain's weekly circulars includes health tips highlighting nutrient-rich products, and information regarding the nutritional benefits of sales items. For example, if watermelon is on sale, Ruhs would write a blurb on the health benefits of watermelon.
Ruhs also writes a feature in weekly circulars, which highlights a selection of healthy products based on a theme. For example, this month's theme was healthy moms and babies, because of Mother's Day, and highlighted foods included folate-rich and lower-calorie orange juice, omega-3-rich tuna and calcium-rich yogurt. Next month's theme will be men's health and healthy grilling for Father's Day.
“Every month we have a write-up in our monthly savings guide, or our food publication, with the sale items [featuring] anywhere from 10-12 products, a message about the theme and how these products fit into healthy living for that particular theme,” Ruhs explained.
In addition, Bashas' has a shelf tag program highlighting healthy products throughout the store, which Ruhs said helps not only its employees, but also its customers.
“We've identified different products in the store that are heart healthy. So, they're low in saturated fat, they have no trans-fats and they meet the FDA guidelines for heart healthy,” Ruhs said. Two new tags will be introduced in June — a reduced-sugar tag and an immune-booster tag.
Since the majority of fresh fruits and vegetables could be classified as healthy, rather than tag every produce item, Ruhs said Bashas' has another plan in mind for the produce department, which will be rolled out into stores in next month.
“I don't want this to be the bold line print, but we also know that promoting healthy eating improves sales,” said Ruhs. “There are tons of statistics that show that the healthy foods category has maintained its growth.”
Connie Clifford, Healthy Living manager of consumer education at Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, agreed that highlighting healthier foods can help boost sales of those foods.
“Hannaford has the Guiding Stars [nutritional labeling] program and all of our fruits and vegetables in the produce area receive one, two or three stars,” Clifford told SN. “And we've noticed that foods that do get one, two or three stars are moving off our shelves much faster than foods that don't. So, the combination of having the Guiding Stars at Hannaford with our education program does increase our consumers' consumption of fruits and vegetables.”
Hannaford offers a nutrition coordinator program where dietitians present classes on health issues such as diabetes, heart health, weight-loss management and gluten-free eating, and emphasize the consumption of whole fruits and vegetables that are low in calories and high in fiber, phytonutrients, and vitamins and minerals.
These classes are held at least once per week at each of the company's stores, and advice is always available through Hannaford's website, where customers can ask health and nutrition questions.
Because eating is a sensory experience, and because some people think that eating healthy might tend to cost more than they'd like to spend, both Bashas' and Hannaford offer sampling, recipe cards and coupons as a part of their classes.
Bashas' offers free one-hour guided tours that cover everything from understanding food labels and preparing wholesome lunches to choosing smarter food options that benefit overall health.
“It's kind of a special thing — I mean how much better can it get than getting nutrition information from a registered dietitian in a grocery store, where you're making food decisions?” Ruhs said. “It's a genius way to reach consumers and to help them actually make behavior changes.”
Tour participants receive “goodie bags” filled with coupons encouraging them to try healthy products that they may be unfamiliar with, like soy milk or bagged salads.
Shoppers are looking for guidance, and recipes continue to be a big deal, said Wynes of PBH. After seeking input from dietitians and retailers, asking them what they needed for their customers, PBH put together a new retail tool kit to help supermarkets offer shoppers new recipe ideas and helpful tips for preparing and storing produce items.
“Consumers are asking retailers for more and more recipes on how to fix this, how to fix that,” Wynes said.
“We're always being asked for recipes on fruits and vegetables. So, we took the monthly veggie of the month feature that we use on our website, and we created a bunch of materials around that, including a recipe.
“So, if a retailer wants to either print them out and distribute them, or put it in their newsletter, or their regular ads, or [their] website, they have this recipe that they can count on being healthy and nutritious.
“Retailers coast-to-coast express an incredible interest in health and wellness, and when retailers have an interest in certain programs, they're confident that those programs are having an impact,” Wynes added.
“If I showed you everything that retailers are doing, you would be amazed at the variety of ways they're communicating to their customers. Retailers are expressing a great interest in it, they're hungry for information they can include in their communications with consumers. They've added dietitians and those dietitians are actively taking that message out to consumers. And fruits and vegetables seem to be a major component of that message.”
PBH is looking for still more ways to get the health message to consumers. The foundation recently began a dialogue with produce growers in an effort to develop a new national fruit and vegetable research and promotion board. The goal would be to boost consumption of all types of produce in the United States through comprehensive marketing, communication and education efforts, all focused on health.
Wynes said he sees a strong correlation between health awareness and produce consumption.
“When retailers create a high awareness for our program, the higher the level of awareness of that program, the more fruits and vegetables people bought,” Wynes said, adding that that comment refers back the PBH's Five A Day program, since the effects of Fruits and Veggies — More Matters! are still being measured.
“So, as awareness of the program increased, we also saw increased purchases. There is a strong correlation between awareness and consumption.”