Nutrition at the Shelf Edge

6/10/2011 19:03:22 PM

Nutrition labeling programs have swept through the industry, but how much are they impacting shoppers' purchasing decisions?

Over the past several years, two parallel trends have been reshaping the supermarket industry.

One is the declining health of the nation, evidenced by growing rates of obesity among both children and adults, as well as almost epidemic levels of diabetes, among other health concerns. Complicating the picture is the aging of the population — especially the massive Baby Boomer segment — along with the ever-rising cost of health care and the raging political debates about how to pay for it all.

Accompanying these health alarms is the proliferation of products in the supermarket as manufacturers and retailers seek to gain competitive advantage and satisfy consumer demand.

Increasingly concerned about their health, yet faced with a dizzying array of merchandise, consumers are asking for help in selecting healthier products. They do get some direction from product packaging, especially the Nutrition Facts panel on the back or side of most edible products, which will be supplemented over the next few years by Nutrition Keys on the front of packaging. Manufacturers also tout nutritional benefits on packaging, and the federal government chips in with dietary guidelines.

But all this information has apparently not alleviated — and may have even exacerbated — the confusion felt by shoppers seeking healthier choices. As a result, numerous food retailers have responded by rolling out nutritional guidance labeling programs of various kinds that promise to provide nutritional clarity at the shelf's edge — a way for shoppers to readily select the products best suited to their health needs and nutritional preferences.

“Our shoppers told us they wanted to do the right thing but were confused by all the claims on packaging, and weren't sure their diet was healthy,” said Julie Greene, director of healthy living for Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, a division of Delhaize America. “So we came up with a way to make it very simple to identify products with more positives than negatives when it comes to nutrition.” Hannaford launched the first major retailer labeling program, Guiding Stars, in 2006.

According to The Food Retailing Industry Speaks 2011, the Food Marketing Institute's annual industry survey, 48.5% of retailer respondents said they have implemented a nutritional labeling guidance program. That's almost twice as many respondents (26.2%) who said they used the programs in the 2010 report. Another 14.7% in the 2011 survey said they are working on implementing a program.

Since 2006, Delhaize USA has rolled out Guiding Stars to its other U.S. chains, including Food Lion, Sweetbay and Bloom. Delhaize has also been marketing the Guiding Stars program since 2009 to other retailers, signing up Homeland, Kings Super Markets and Marsh. In 2008, NuVal, Braintree, Mass., introduced its product scoring system, which is now used in 1,030 supermarkets, including stores run by Price Chopper Supermarkets, Tops Friendly Markets, Hy-Vee, Meijer, Big Y, Skogen's Festival Foods, K-VA-T Food Stores and United Supermarkets.

A number of chains have rolled out nutrition labeling programs that highlight specific nutritional elements, based on a database supplied by Vestcom, Little Rock, Ark. These include Supervalu's Nutrition iQ and Bashas' Eat Smart.

Other retailer programs include Bi-Lo's Thrive!, Stop & Shop's Healthy Ideas, Safeway's SimpleNutrition, Rosauers Supermarkets' Blue is Better and Whole Foods Market's Health Starts Here.


Results from FMI's U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2011 report suggest that retailers' nutritional labeling programs are making a difference: Two-thirds of consumer respondents said they use the programs either frequently or occasionally, and 7% said they use them each time they shop, to select healthier foods. In addition, 30% completely understand the programs and 63% understand them somewhat.

Among users, 42% apply the programs only to finding healthier selections among new items, the rest applying it to regular purchases alone (7%) or both regular and new items (51%). Perhaps most importantly, 43% said they absolutely make healthier choices now than before using the programs and 36% said they maybe make more healthful choices now.

Among retailers offering a program, 54.8% said it is influencing consumer choices at least “somewhat,” while 9.7% said it is influencing choices “a lot,” according to the Speaks report.

Not everyone regards nutritional information programs in a positive light. “These methods make sense if you think a slightly healthier junk food is a good choice for health,” said Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “I don't.” She views them as “entirely about marketing.”

But other nutrition experts see value in the retailer programs. “All the technical nutrition details can become information overload to consumers,” said Lauren Swann, a registered dietitian and nutrition marketing communication strategist based in Bensalem, Pa., who is an unpaid advisor to NuVal and has been a paid consultant for Nutrition iQ. “They need a quick hit, with concise information. The retailer and front-of-package programs are a way to capture the most important basics for them. I think that's helpful.”

Retailers, Swann added, “want to genuinely play a role in achieving public health goals.” And by addressing consumers' multitude of questions about diet and health, they become more attractive to shoppers. “I don't think retailers are necessarily seeing this as a profit driver,” she said. “But it fits into their business model.”

But Swann would like improvements in the labeling programs. For example, she believes more of them should incorporate nutrient density per calorie, rather than simply focusing on controlling calories, fat, sodium and other negative factors. Bill Bishop, chairman of Willard Bishop LLC, Barrington, Ill., observed that the current systems have not sufficiently reflected the impact of nutrients like phytochemicals, which can significantly impact health outcomes.

Swann also professed to being mystified at times by the rating and ranking programs. “How does something as wholesome as an egg end up not being as good as a diet lemonade?” she asked. And she sometimes sees inconsistencies between how systems like NuVal and Guiding Stars rate a product. “There needs to be a more consistent playing field,” she said, “so people can see these things all in the same perspective.”

To that end, Swann thinks regulation of rating systems by the Food and Drug Administration is needed. While the FDA regulates retail shelf labeling claims like low sodium or heart healthy as it does for labels and claims on packaging, the agency does not currently regulate shelf tags with scores or ratings. But this regulation could be coming, she noted, pointing out that in April 2010 the FDA announced it was seeking comment and information on both front-of-package labeling and shelf-tag symbols.

The retail labeling programs have also raised questions about whether manufacturers are influencing what labels say about their products — either directly or as a result of retailers not wanting to offend their suppliers.

When retailer nutritional guidance programs first emerged, manufacturers were “concerned about any information that would work to the disadvantage of their products,” Bishop said. However, not being able to get enough retailers together to have a “collective discussion” about the programs, manufacturers shifted to developing the front-of-package Nutrition Keys program, he said. “If nutrition information is more prominent in the store, front-of-package programs give them a chance to put it in the context they want to have it in.”

Retailers using the programs insist they get little pushback from manufacturers and when they do they are able to address it satisfactorily. “When the programs started there might have been a little influence there, but I don't think that's what's driving them now,” said Swann. Moreover, many large CPG firms like General Mills and PepsiCo have made a concerted effort to come out with more nutrient-rich products, she noted.

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