Standing between the lettuce and grapes in a Safeway produce section, the 5-foot-tall computer suddenly begins to talk. The male voice, reminiscent of Hal in the movie "2001 A Space Odyssey," says in a gentle, reassuring tone:
"NICE is a pilot system developed by the KBL Group, Inc., under a grant from the National Cancer Institute. Safeway has agreed to participate in testing this system. Touch anywhere on the screen to start . . ."
After asking the user a few questions, the screen displays a colorful graphic of six options, including how to a read a food label, a calculation of the user's daily nutritional allowances and suggestions for healthy eating. The consumer is instructed to pick a topic and touch the screen on the corresponding graphic.
Dispensing nutrition information is not new for supermarkets; brochures and shelf-labeling programs are already available. And computers are not altogether new either; some grocers around the country have been using them to dispense recipes or display store directories.
But the KBL Group, a College Park health promotion firm, may be one of the first companies to test an interactive computer system with a full range of nutrition information. Many health authorities believe that teaching nutrition in the supermarket -- where people actually make food decisions -- is both expedient and sensible.
Funded by the National Cancer Institute, NICE (Nutrition Information for Consumer Education) has been tested since last month in two suburban Washington Safeway stores on Burke Center Parkway in Burke and the Greenway Shopping Center in Greenbelt. On April 15, the computers will be moved to the Safeways in the Hillandale Shopping Center in Silver Spring and the McLean store on Chain Bridge Road. At the end of June, KBL will analyze information about the users and their views on whether the computer was helpful.
Beth Johnson, KBL's nutrition coordinator, said that the company sought store locations with highly educated shoppers who would accept computers and "new things." Next, she said, the company may investigate a modified program for other stores.
One recent afternoon in the Greenbelt Safeway, a woman stopped to use the computer. As one of her two little girls snatched grapes from the adjacent stand, the woman chose the box on the screen labeled "Nutrition Information and Comparison of Products." First, she requested a nutrition profile on ground beef. A full listing of the calories, fat and cholesterol appeared. Then the woman decided to compare ground beef with boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Nutrition information for chicken popped up next to that for ground beef.
She then proceeded to the recipe file. When she requested the "poultry" category, the computer displayed a list of nutritional concerns. She asked for fat and cholesterol. The computer then selected a list of poultry recipes that are low in both. Chicken Madeira sounded appealing, so she got a printout of the recipe.
Carol Impara, a nutritionist who assists shoppers with NICE, said a lot of consumers want to know how many calories, fat, cholesterol and other nutrients they should eat daily.
That was true of Karen and Leon Calhoun, who wheeled their empty shopping cart past the kiosk at the start of their shopping trip at the Greenbelt store. The computer asked Leon Calhoun a series of questions -- his age (45), height (5 feet, 11 inches) and weight (205 pounds). It then asked for his activity level (light) and how many hours a week he exercises (less than 1 1/2 hours).
A chart appeared on the screen, detailing Calhoun's daily requirements, including calories, total grams of fat -- calculated from 30 percent of calories -- saturated fat, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, sodium, cholesterol and Vitamins A, C, calcium and iron. An adjacent chart explained how Calhoun can use this information to help read food labels; he requested a printout.
Karen Calhoun then took her turn, and the couple left to finish shopping. "I'm going to keep coming," Leon Calhoun quipped, "Until the machine tells me I can eat anything."
Eating Right appears on alternate Tuesdays.