LIVE FROM EXPO EAST: Spreading the Gospel of Healthy Eating

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LIVE FROM EXPO EAST: Spreading the Gospel of Healthy Eating


The role of dietitians at grocery retail remains loosely defined, but that has not slowed the movement’s importance to the industry, according to exclusive research from Progressive Grocer presented this week before some three dozen nutrition professionals at a conference in Baltimore held in conjunction with Natural Products Expo East.

Hosted by PG and Stagnito Media at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel on Sept. 25, the one-day Retail Dietitian Symposium focused on education and the value of the retail dietitian in today’s marketplace. In addition to PG’s proprietary research, speakers from Nielsen, FMI and Pulse Marketing further discussed the value of retail dietitians and their role in relation to consumers and CPG companies.

Data presented by PG Editor-in-Chief Jim Dudlicek included original research based on a survey conducted this past summer among c-level, operations, pharmacy and health-and-wellness professionals at grocery retailers across the United States. The survey – results of which will be published in PG’s October 2013 issue - included both telephone and electronic interviews, and results are based on participation of 123 respondents.

Nearly 40 percent of respondents to PG’s survey indicate they have a registered dietitian (RD) on staff. Mid-tier retailers, those with between 11 and 200 outlets, are most likely to have RDs on staff, indicating that smaller players can still use RDs as a differentiator among competitors.

Nearly 60 percent of respondents from chains with more than 200 stores don’t have RDs at their companies. Research doesn’t reveal the degree to which nonlicensed professionals are used by the grocery industry, but other titles used by companies include “nutrition educator” and “wellness expert.”

The actual role of RDs is still a point of confusion in the industry. Respondents to PG’s survey indicate RDs work in a few departments, meaning that even retailers themselves aren’t sure where the RD role resides. More than 40 percent of respondents say the role of RD falls under the marketing and advertising arm of the retail banner.

Grocery retailers typically connect with consumers through myriad channels, including circulars, newsletters, social media, in-store signage and community partnerships. Retailers with dietitians make even more pronounced use of these venues than do stores that don’t employ RDs. In the instance of social media, for example, nearly 85 percent of respondents from companies with a RD use social media to promote health and nutrition, compared with 44.3 percent of respondents from companies that don’t have a RD.

“Grocers with registered dietitians seem to be getting good traction among their customers and hope to expand their role as shoppers turn to grocers as a reliable resource for health and wellness issues,” Dudlicek concluded. “Those not currently utilizing RDs show little signs of joining the herd anytime soon and may not opt to unless they see their shoppers abandoning ship for competitors offering this added value.”

Moderator for the day’s sessions was Barbara Ruhs, PG columnist and registered dietitian with Arizona-based supermarket chain Bashas’.

Leading off the sessions was Jeff Gregori, VP of consumer and shopper analytics for Nielsen, who spoke on “The Healthy Consumer: Myth versus Reality.”

Gregori assessed healthy food trends and shopping behavior by socio-economic status to reveal unique growth opportunities and unmet needs. He discussed the key challenges in reaching target consumers in a value-driven market.

While consumers are more mindful of healthy living, “it’s still a struggle to make healthy choices in or out of the home,” Gregori said. “People want to eat healthier but want value as well.”

Expansion of organic choices in center store has opened more opportunities for lower-income consumers to enjoy healthier food, Gregori asserted. “There is a lot more trial going on,” he said. “Health is a cornerstone of retail messaging.”

Coca-Cola’s Robert Earl discussed the food industry’s role in obesity. “It’s not just about the food we take in – it’s about the energy we expend,” Earl said, urging that supermarkets promote an "energy-calorie balance through sensible eating and regular physical activity.”

Earl also presented third-party data indicating the safety of artificial sweeteners and noting their useful role in sensible eating, as long as calories they save are not replaced with other foods.

Joel Warady, chief sales and marketing officer for “free-from” food marketer Enjoy Life, discussed advancements made in gluten-free and other non-allergen food products. He shared the company's validation process for ingredient suppliers, the testing that it does for both inbound and outbound ingredients and finished product, as well as the safety procedures in place to maintain the integrity of the product, and the company's brand promise.

Warady said the “taste bar has really risen” for free-from foods.

Cathy Polley, VP for health and wellness at the Food Marketing Institute, discussed how the rapidly growing role of the supermarket RD will be critical to the success of the store and its shoppers. She examined key findings from the 2013 Shopping for Health survey of America’s grocery shoppers, and how retail dietitians can leverage these trends to develop a successful and competitive health and wellness program in their stores.

Cost and lack of motivation to change one’s eating habits are the leading barriers to healthy eating, Polley revealed. Consumers want to see more local food, tasting stations for healthier foods and more ready-to-eat healthier foods, she noted.

Brian Levy, president of Pulse Health &Wellness, discussed what CPG companies look for in a relationship with retail dietitians in order to help shape the future of in-store health and wellness marketing while simultaneously adding value to their retail brand, supplier partners and their shoppers.

Finally, Ruhs led a panel discussion that included Leah McGrath, corporate dietitian for Ingles Markets, and Caroline Passerrello, manager of dietitian initiatives at Giant Eagle, who discussed their roles as RDs in working with their store chains, customers and CPG companies.