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The New Nutrition Vocabulary

When it comes to food and nutrition, there’s a whole new language out there.

Not long ago, consumers favored food attributes such as “fat-free” and “low cholesterol.” It was pretty straightforward for dietitians to answer shoppers’ questions about these terms, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines and regulates their use on food packages.

Today, however, many nutrition-aware consumers clamor for attributes that aren’t well defined, or that enjoy a sometimes undeserved “healthy halo” suggesting that a food is a better or more nutritious choice.

One example is the popular term “natural,” which gives the aura of wholesomeness, but doesn’t have a standard definition across regulatory agencies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates meat and poultry, defines natural as “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and [that] is only minimally processed.” The FDA, which regulates packaged foods, doesn’t define “natural,” but doesn’t object to use of the term if the food doesn’t contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. This isn’t too clear for the average shopper puzzling over a food label.

Sustainability attributes are prevalent, too. These include “local,” “grass-fed,” “cage-free,” “no hormones” and “no antibiotics,” to name just a few. Again, these terms don’t always have consistent definitions or signal a product that’s more healthful.

Sometimes the role of a food component is misunderstood by consumers. “Gluten-free” is a great example. A gluten-free diet is a proven clinical must for those diagnosed with celiac disease. But for healthy people, does science support its use for purported benefits such as losing weight and boosting energy? Not so much.

Of course, food companies and retailers want to give shoppers products with their desired attributes. Who can bridge the gap between profitable promotions and responsible, science-based information? Retail dietitians (RDs) can.

Education, Reputation

RDs know trends, marketing and the types of products shoppers are looking for. They also can explain the state of the nutrition science behind various product claims, and what terms such as “organic,” “grass-fed” and “hormone-free” mean.

For instance, many RDs spend time clarifying that organic foods aren’t necessarily more nutritious than their conventional counterparts — a common misconception among some consumers. In reality, the USDA Organic designation refers to a unique set of food production methods, not nutritional value.

RDs can help protect your reputation, too. The industry is well aware that several major food companies and retailers have been targeted with lawsuits involving the use of the term “natural.” RDs will help you steer clear of troublesome packaging claims and promotions, or know the right regulatory consultants to advise you.

RDs are translation experts. Their training in nutrition education means they can customize information for shoppers with different educational backgrounds, income levels and food preferences, and distill complicated or confusing information into clear advice. They also can educate your employees who frequently field shopper questions.

Perhaps most important, RDs know how to give shoppers positive and practical guidance so they feel good about their food choices — whatever food attributes they favor.

RDs know how to give shoppers positive and practical guidance so they feel good about their food choices — whatever food attributes they favor.

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