Next on your grocery list: help from store's dietitian

September 19, 2006|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN REPORTER

Walking into a supermarket often makes Michael Thompson feel as though he's navigating a foreign country.

The maze of aisles, today's hyper-conscious fixation on health and conflicting news on nutrition bewilder him. Labels promoting the benefits of low-sodium, low-cal, all-natural, sugar-free, organic, trans-fat free, high-fiber or antioxidant-rich foods boggle his brain. "I know I need a more balanced diet," says the 28-year-old computer cartographer from Eldersburg. "But I just have no idea where to start."

Tired of feeling intimidated by unfamiliar territory, Thompson found help at his local grocery store.

In her role as the first full-time, in-house registered dietitian at the new Martin's food store in Eldersburg, Lisa Coleman steers him clear of fats, preservatives and artificial sweets. As they tour the aisles, she introduces him to healthful alternatives and tries to entice him to try grapes instead of Oreos, organic blue corn tortillas instead of Doritos and all-natural, crunchy granola instead of Cocoa Puffs.

With growing concerns about the nation's obesity epidemic and other chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, more grocery chains are adding dietitians on staff to help consumers not only watch what they're stuffing into their shopping carts, but more important, their bodies.

Given that most people make up their minds on what to buy when they get to the store, food retailers are increasingly searching for ways to give shoppers nutritional information through tours, classes, in-store health screenings, newsletters and tips online. Although personal dietary counseling service is still relatively rare in this region, experts say the presence of a supermarket nutritionist could become as familiar and accessible to shoppers in the future as a store pharmacist is now.

"Hiring nutritionists was fairly popular about 20 years ago and then it subsided," says Linda McDonald, publisher of Supermarket Savvy, a Houston-based education and research service for health professionals. "In the last two or three years, we've seen a resurgence. Now that all the obesity statistics are around, and new research shows how bad trans-fats are, the pendulum has swung back."

For decades, dietitians hired by supermarkets mostly worked in the corporate office to recommend products and develop policy. Then customers began demanding more healthful foods, which prompted many stores to add health food sections and brands that once could only be found at natural food stores, McDonald says.

These days, growing awareness about health is the reason why many dietitians are working directly in stores, creating partnerships with community groups and available by phone and e-mail to consult with customers.

"It's definitely a growing trend," says Shari Steinbach, chair of the dietitians in the supermarket industry group for the American Dietetic Association. "People are realizing more these days that what we eat and how we eat contribute to all sorts of chronic lifestyle diseases. There's more interest from people now to eat healthier. They don't want to eat out all the time because it's expensive and they often overeat.

"With nutritionists at the supermarket, we can show people how to do that in a quick and simple way," Steinbach says. "It's really the best place to reach people with a healthy eating message because it's the place where they're making decisions to take food home."

Six dietitians work throughout Phoenix-based Albertsons' regional divisions and the Meijers chain, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., uses three registered dietitians to cover 175 supermarkets in five states.

Steinbach, one of Meijers' three, helps put together a popular healthful menu plan handed out to customers, which suggests recipes for a week of meals based on store sale items. Each menu has a nutritional breakdown of how many calories, carbohydrates, fat and fiber for each meal suggestion.

In West Sacramento, Calif., Raley's has a corporate nutritionist who is available for food tours and online questions. Some chains are more ambitious. In the past 18 months, Iowa-based Hy-Vee Inc. has been hiring nutrition experts every month to push its wellness program. Sixty-five of its 199 supermarkets have in-store dietitians. The company has set a goal to have 100 on staff by the end of the year.

Ralph Tucker would love some help from a store nutritionist.

The Greektown caterer says buying something as simple as soup is hard. Keeping an eye on serving sizes and sodium content per serving feels like computing math problems.

"You really have to do extended research before you get to the store if you're trying to be healthy," says Tucker, 53, who was shopping at the Canton Safeway for his son's 11th birthday dinner. "Carbs are in, carbs are out. Fats are in, fats are out. Coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you. It's hard to keep up."

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