Confronting An Epidemic

New initiatives and products available at retail are helping shoppers get the drop on their diabetes.

Chances are, someone you know has diabetes, or is at risk for the condition and isn't even aware of it.

Skyrocketing rates of type 2 diabetes (once known as “adult onset,” but now seen increasingly in children) have led to a bumper crop of sobering statistics: According to Chicago-based market research company Mintel, there are currently 24 million diabetics in the United States; 57 million who are pre-diabetic, which means that they could develop the disease without proper treatment; and 2 million cases diagnosed each year.

The reasons for this spike in diabetes cases are complex, but most observers attribute it to a number of factors. Mary Ellen Burris, SVP of consumer affairs at Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets, laid it out for readers in a column that recently appeared on the grocer's website, noting such circumstances as higher longevity rates, earlier diagnoses and a more diverse population, including groups at higher risk for the condition, as well as one obvious red flag: “[T]here's no ducking the major effect of an increasing number of overweight Americans.”

What this all means is that there are an awful lot of people out there who need to follow a lifestyle that will keep them optimally healthy and enable them to avoid many of the devastating complications of diabetes, which include kidney failure, blindness and lower-limb amputations. Supermarkets, by virtue of being in the business of selling food, HBC products and, often, medications, are uniquely suited to help diabetic shoppers make the right choices to stay well.

In response to this need, grocers such as Giant Eagle, Price Chopper, Publix Super Markets, Star Supermarket & Pharmacy, Supervalu and Wegmans have introduced comprehensive programs for diabetic consumers, offering them not only appropriate medications — often free or discounted — but also blood glucose screenings, nutrition classes, exercise tips, store tours highlighting the best foods to keep the condition in check, disease management guidance and meal-planning advice, among other features.

Wegmans is a particular standout in this regard. Along with the rollout of Diabetes Solution Centers offering 4 to 8 feet of shelf space of diabetes-related health products near the pharmacy section in all 77 of its stores, the chain last November introduced its first Wegmans brand blood glucose monitoring devices. The TRUEresult system and TRUE2go, which are small enough to fit a purse, pocket or gym bag, enable those with the condition or who are at risk for it to track their blood glucose levels more easily and at a lower cost than with other comparable systems.

“Glucose self-monitoring, along with carbohydrate counting, helps people with diabetes develop an everyday pattern with the best amounts and timing for food, exercise and insulin,” explains Wegmans nutrition and product labeling manager Jane Andrews. “Later on, they can use testing information to make adjustments.”

Featuring four testing reminder alarms, a 500-test memory to see trends over time, and an alert to the user to test for ketones if blood glucose levels are high, the units were made to Wegmans' specifications by Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Nipro Diagnostics, with oversight by the grocer's senior category manager for health and beauty products, Mark Schliff. The TRUEresult meter retails for $19.99, while the TRUE2go meter goes for $8.99, although some patients may be eligible to receive free meters under certain health plans, as well as reduced-price test strips. According to Dave Perlman, pharmacy category manager, the TRUEresult could save a patient as much as $400 in a year's time.

Despite expending so much effort on the development of sophisticated monitoring devices, Wegmans is careful never to lose focus on what really matters: the people they were designed for. “Since my husband recently learned that he was at risk for diabetes, he's tested the new products,” notes Burris in the same column quoted from above. “He reports that he especially likes the tiny amount of blood needed for each test, fast results (less than four seconds) and the True2go little meter for away-from-home use.”

Eating Right

Naturally enough, a large part of helping diabetic customers live better is to provide the items that will enable them to achieve their health goals, particularly that of weight management — a key factor in blood sugar control — while not making them feel deprived. One such product line is Glucerna, which offers a range of shakes, bars and cereals for people with diabetes. “The slowly digested carbohydrates in Glucerna products are designed to help manage blood sugar spikes when used as part of a diabetes management plan,” observes Sondra Miller, division VP, therapeutics at Columbus, Ohio-based Abbott Nutrition, the maker of the line.

Miller describes the brand's offerings as “a better alternative to skipped meals, unhealthy snacks and low-nutrition meals.” Additionally, “Glucerna Shakes are clinically shown to help people with diabetes lose weight when used as part of a structured weight-loss program,” she notes.

Although Glucerna released no new products in 2010, “we are looking at expanding our product line later this year,” affirms Miller.

Last year, the brand launched its “Balance” campaign, which emphasized the importance of living a healthy, balanced life to effectively manage diabetes. The campaign encompassed national TV, traditional consumer promotions and targeted Hispanic marketing efforts, among other components. Glucerna additionally redesigned its shake packaging with new graphics and an easy-to-grasp carrier. “These activities have contributed to helping Glucerna maintain its market-leading position,” says Miller.

In 2011, Glucerna has joined forces with diet, fitness and healthy-lifestyle website The sponsorship deal includes a strong presence on the site's growing diabetes community section.

A diabetes diagnosis brings with it a lot of lifestyle changes, including the elimination of many favorite indulgences like candy and ice cream. Clemmy's Ice Cream — billed by the Rancho Mirage, Calif.-based company's VP business development and strategic planning, Brian Silver, as “the world's only sugar-free ice cream that also happens to be all-natural, super-premium, kosher-certified, rich and creamy” — enables many to incorporate the frozen treat back into their diets.

Developed by Jon Gordon after a routine physical exam showed that he was pre-diabetic, Clemmy's, which features the natural sweetener xylitol, currently comes in eight flavors and two novelty items, with additional products on tap for a spring 2012 retail debut.

The ice cream maker's marketing strategy has combined the tried-and-true with the cutting edge. “Since the beginning, Clemmy's has used traditional marketing and merchandising strategies, including FSIs in our market areas, spot television commercials, radio advertisements [and] in-store sampling,” notes Silver, in addition to social media outlets. “Recently, our Face-book page has grown exponentially, and the awareness has increased sales,” he says. “At the beginning of March, Clemmy's launched the ‘Clemmy's Sugar Free Initiative,’ which will tie into our Facebook, Twitter and website.”

The company has additionally forged strategic alliances with like-minded organizations, among them, aptly enough, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). Clemmy's sponsors the foundation's local walks, as well as donating a portion of its November proceeds to benefit the cause. Other endeavors in this vein include supporting Safeway's “City of Hope” campaign.

Another way diabetics can keep their sweet tooth satisfied and their weight down is by using a sugar substitute such as Truvia, a natural, zero-calorie tabletop sweetener made with rebiana, which is derived from the stevia leaf. According to Minneapolis-based Cargill, Truvia's manufacturer: “Clinical studies have shown that daily consumption of 1,000 milligrams of rebiana, equivalent to drinking eight 8-ounce servings of rebiana-sweetened beverage every day, for 16 weeks did not affect blood sugar control and was well tolerated in people with type 2 diabetes. Truvia [also] has no effect on the glycemic index.”

As well as being available by itself in packets and canisters, Truvia can be found as an ingredient items from Coca-Cola, Kraft and others. “More than 100 food and beverage companies are actively partnering with Cargill to develop new products with Truvia rebiana, with multiple launch timelines,” notes the manufacturer.

In its relatively brief time on the market (it first rolled out in July 2008), the product has encountered sweet success, reaching the rank of No. 2 sweetener brand in the United States. To keep that momentum going, Truvia “has developed and managed multiple shopper marketing programs at retail this current year,” Cargill says. “The brand has a significant consumer marketing campaign that combines TV, print and digital advertising.”

As for the short-term future of products aimed at diabetics, Clemmy's Silver sees it as “huge,” citing a report by health insurer UnitedHealth Group with the almost incredible finding that by 2020, more than half of all Americans will be diabetic or at risk for diabetes. Therefore, grocers and CPG companies that cater to this unfortunately growing demographic, through product offerings as well as special programs, will boost the loyalty — and spending — of shoppers affected by the health crisis.

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