GROCERY: Wake-up Call: Healthy and healthier

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GROCERY: Wake-up Call: Healthy and healthier

By David Diamond - 05/15/2007
Delhaize-owned Hannaford Supermarkets made headlines when it introduced its "Guiding Stars" program, which assigns stars to most of the edible items in the store, based on the inherent nutritional quality of each item.

To determine the criteria for evaluating products, the Scarborough, Maine-based retailer worked with a panel of dietary experts to create a proprietary formula used to examine 100-calorie samples of each product. This formula balances credits for the presence of good things (such as vitamins and grains) and debits for the presence of bad things (like fats, cholesterol, sugars, and salt). Stars are awarded and prominently displayed on the shelf tags in the store, with three stars being the highest nutritional rating in the program.

Not surprisingly, things like fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meats, and unprocessed foods in general typically earn at least two stars.

It's also not a surprise that highly processed and highly sweetened foods have lots of trouble earning stars.

What's surprising is that few processed and manufactured foods, even those labeled "low-fat," "low-calorie" or "diet," earned more than one star in Hannaford's system. This raises an interesting question about cognitive dissonance within our stores, a question that puts both retailers and manufacturers in a tough position.

Are manufacturers promoting food as "healthy" that doesn't live up to such billing? Are they misleading consumers?

And why does Hannaford give low nutritional ratings to products that the manufacturer touts as healthy? The issue has roots in two realities.

The first reality is that healthy eating is a complicated issue. The nutritional value of any food is more than a matter of calories -- it's the result of a complex equation involving vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and the degradation of enzymes. It's not as simple as eating more of X, and less of Y.

However, any effort to define a specific food as "healthy" or "unhealthy" is, by definition, overly simplistic, since humans require a balance of nutrients to achieve health. So the first part of the problem is the desperate search for simple answers to a complicated problem.

The second issue is that of the comparative set. Typically manufacturers define the "healthiness" of their "healthy" products compared to traditional products in the same categories. Healthy Choice Entrees are healthier than Stouffer's Red Box Entrees. Snackwell cookies are healthier than Oreos (if you eat the same number of them). South Beach Diet pizza is healthier than Digiorno Pizza. And so on.

Making comparisons

But healthier doesn't mean healthy. Healthy Choice meat loaf is healthier than Stouffer's, but less healthy than a slice of meat loaf prepared at home with lean meat, fresh herbs, and vegetables. The former is less healthy because it has more calories, fat, and preservatives; is more highly processed; is older; and contains fewer vitamins and minerals.

This issue -- "compared to what" -- is complicated, indeed; comparisons drive the underlying issue of eating well, and eating better, because what one finds is that it's easy to eat better without eating well.

This is the underlying problem that makes it hard to reconcile Healthy Choice with the Hannaford Guiding Stars program. Healthy Choice is simply saying it's "better" (in this case, better than full-fat frozen entrees), while Hannaford is taking the more difficult challenge of separating the good (three stars) from the adequate (two stars) from the poor (one star) in terms of absolute nutritional value.

While Hannaford has undertaken a much greater and more important challenge than Healthy Choice, it's done so in a creditable way, figuring out an adequate, if not exceptional, way to communicate its findings. I think that Hannaford has done an admirable job in taking a position, rolling out that position across the store, and taking the high road in applying a consistent model across all categories and departments. The chain is to be commended -- and copied -- in this effort.

So what actions should we be taking as an industry? First, I think all food retailers need to involve themselves in providing their consumers good, solid nutritional information.

Second, we need to be more aggressive about managing manufacturers, by monitoring what they're saying and how they're saying it. We need to push manufacturers to be clear about the comparisons they make on their packages and in their advertising.

Third, we all need to look at this subject through a wider lens. The issue is certainly not as simple as eating full-fat vs. low-fat frozen entrees, and it arguably shouldn't be limited just to comparing the nutritional value of fresh carrots and fresh chicken to a frozen entree, but should be extended to include all sorts of healthier, more natural choices in the store.

Fourth, we need to become far more flexible about buying and selling locally produced food. It goes without saying that the vast majority of the food we sell is shipped through an elaborate supply chain for long distances. At a minimum, we need to put policies in place that allow and encourage store managers to buy and sell locally produced products.

Supermarket retailers know a lot about food. If we capitalize on this expertise and set our minds to being the "go-to" source of food information for our customers, we'll be in a position to continue to build their trust and loyalty.