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Deloitte’s “Fresh Food as Medicine" report found that 84% of consumers polled weigh health and wellness as a key factor when buying fresh food.

‘Food as medicine’ concept embraced by consumers

Shoppers link fresh foods to better health and seek guidance from grocers, Deloitte study finds

The link between fresh, healthier food and improved well-being isn’t lost on grocery shoppers, even amid today’s inflationary environment.

Of 2,054 U.S. adults polled, 84% weigh health and wellness as a key factor when buying fresh food, according to Deloitte’s “Fresh Food as Medicine for the Heartburn of High Prices” report, released Monday. What’s more, about 75% said they’re actively seeking more personalized nutrition, up 13 percentage points from a year ago, and 55% will pay extra for “the right foods” that bolster their health and wellness.

Deloitte, which in July surveyed consumers ages 18 to 70 who influenced fresh food purchases in their households, noted that its study’s findings buttress the concept of “food as medicine,” or using food and diet to prevent and treat specific health conditions and further personal wellness goals.

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For example, 80% of survey respondents think fresh foods are better for you than packaged or processed foods that are marketed as healthy. In turn, most of those polled believe certain foods bring functional wellness benefits, such as boosting mental or physical performance (cited by 79%), providing preventive (78%) or therapeutic health properties (76%), or serving as the best medicine (75%).

Many also seek specific benefits from food such as weight management (43%), managing existing medical conditions (32%), disease prevention (39%), immunity building (35%), improving emotional/mental health (34%), raising cognitive performance (21%) and boosting athletic performance (13%).

Others target general wellness benefits from purchasing fresh food. Deloitte found that 52% favor fresh options to “feel good,” 45% to lift overall energy and 24% to “look good.”

“Despite inflation and rising food costs, consumers are willing to pay for fresh food that will positively impact their health and wellness,” Daniel Edsall, principal at New York-based Deloitte Consulting LLP, said in a statement. “Amid increasing competition, fresh food producers and retailers have the opportunity to introduce consumers to healthy choices and use food as medicine. Grocers who can close the information gap between fresh food and its health outcomes can be better-positioned to win over consumers and compete on aspects other than price.”

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Indeed, customers are looking to grocery retailers for guidance on how to find, choose and cook the foods to best support their health needs and goals and special dietary concerns. Deloitte’s survey showed that 62% are encountering conflicting information and confusion about the health properties of certain foods. Likewise, about 40% don’t clearly understand which fresh foods can act like medicine, and 52% want data about food origins, safety and nutritional value to do so.  

Consumers, too, hold a high level of trust in grocers to help them in this regard. Fifty-six percent said they trust their grocer to provide data about the safety, origin and nutritional properties of fresh food items (56%) and properly use and protect their personal data (54%). Deloitte’s research also revealed that 48% would share data on their dietary preferences, 42%) would share some medical data (such as from an in-store pharmacy), and 48% would use a digital shopping app or website to get personalized fresh food recommendations from their preferred grocer.

“Using food as medicine is one of the ways consumers can be empowered to take control of their health. However, not every household has equal access to or can afford to pay higher prices for fresh, healthy foods which is a factor that contributes to health inequities and poorer health outcomes,” commented Jay Bhatt, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions and the Deloitte Health Equity Institute. “We recognize that grocers and other stakeholders have an important role to play in supporting the health and wellness of their communities by helping to ensure their customers benefit from the connection between healthy foods and good health.”

Supermarkets, drugstores and other grocery retailers for years have been trying to position themselves as neighborhood health destinations. A core strategy has been building stronger connections between the food and pharmacy areas while offering expertise from on-site-pharmacy staff and professionals such as dietitians and nutritionists.

Such efforts have gained traction, in particular, amid the nation’s diabetes epidemic as a way for patients to better manage their condition or, in the case of type 2 diabetes, to reverse the condition by coordinating medication and diet. Many grocers also conduct store tours led by dietitians to help shoppers select foods that are heart-healthy, low in sodium or sugar, low in fat or fat-free, or meet specific dietary needs (such as gluten-free, keto, paleo, etc.).

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For instance, The Kroger Co. has developed its Food as Medicine platform to help consumers make smarter, more nutritious food choices to foster overall wellness and aid those with chronic health conditions. In April, the grocer’s Kroger Health arm said it funded a study by the University of Cincinnati — dubbed Supermarket and Web-based Intervention targeting Nutrition (SuperWIN) — finding that promoting a heart-healthy diet via nutrition counseling from a registered dietitian improved diet quality and lowered cardiovascular disease risk.

Kroger and other grocers also have enabled customers to receive “food prescriptions” to  address certain health needs. In 2020, Kroger piloted a program in which physicians can write food prescriptions that patients fill at a local store under the guidance of a Kroger Health professional. Under the test, a doctor made dietary recommendations to diabetes patients and directed them to a nutrition expert at a Kroger supermarket.

In 2019, Giant Food launched Produce Rx, a program of local nonprofit DC Greens to boost access to healthy food. Through Produce Rx, people who receive benefits via the AmeriHealth Caritas DC managed Medicaid health plan can get a prescription for fruit and vegetables from a medical professional for a diet-related chronic illness and fill the script at a Giant supermarket pharmacy.

And this past January, Stop & Shop announced plans to go chainwide with the Fresh Connect program, which offers food insecure consumers prepaid debit cards “prescribed” by health care providers to buy fresh produce. Stop & Shop noted that, with the expansion of Fresh Connect, it became the first major retailer to make the produce-as-a-prescription program available. In addition, Stop & Shop in February worked with the National Grocers Association Foundation Technical Assistance Center to create testimonial and informational videos to promote the food-as-medicine concept.

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