With roughly 20,000 new food products flooding the market each year in packages often riddled with confusing health claims and verification stamps, choosing groceries has become a dizzying experience. If you have a special dietary problem, such as a food allergy, the maze becomes even more complex. Major grocery chains, aware of the problem and eager to jump on the wellness bandwagon, are hiring a new kind of expert to help shoppers navigate their store — a supermarket dietitian.
When it was founded in 2001 the Supermarket-Retail Dietitians practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics had 14 members. Today, it has 720, a testament to the grocery industry’s growing emphasis on providing food and nutrition guidance as a service for shoppers.
Fifty-five percent of consumers see their primary food store as an ally in their wellness efforts, ranking right up there with health clubs (57 percent), according to the 2018 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report published by the Food Marketing Institute. Beyond needing help deciphering labels and choosing ingredients, shoppers surveyed said they want real-life meal solutions, inspiration and guidance in the form of recipes, grab-and-go options and nutritional recommendations. Retail dietitians who provide those things benefit businesses as well as customers. Another FMI report published in 2017 noted that 81 percent of retailers viewed supermarket health and wellness programs as a significant business growth opportunity for the industry, and 69 percent consider such programs a responsibility to their communities and customers.
As Kim Kirchherr, a dietitian and supermarket consultant working with Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA) put it, “This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s where people are making their food decisions.”
So how can you best take advantage of these complimentary health and wellness services? That depends on where you shop. Some brands have in-store dietitians conducting tours, leading cooking demonstrations and classes, providing tasting opportunities, and doing health screenings. Others focus their outreach online and in print with robust dietitian-run Web pages, social media platforms and apps, as well as newsletters, magazines and tip sheets where you can find recipes, healthy meal inspirations and ingredient guidance. Many have a multipronged approach. Hy-Vee, for example, a chain of more than 240 supermarkets located throughout the Midwest, coordinates in-store and Web-based outreach though its Dietitian Pick of the Month program, where a chosen healthy ingredient is highlighted in store tours, cooking classes, online videos and in social media. The first two products featured when the chain started this program in 2009 were chia seeds and Greek yogurt, and they remain big sellers for the chain today.
In some supermarkets, dietitians are literally putting meals together for customers — no doubt a response to the popularity of boxed meal-kit subscription services. Coborn’s, also in the Midwest, has dietitian-designed, same-day-packaged meal kits available for online order, and some ShopRite locations have an area of the store where shoppers can pick up a copy of a dietitian-approved weekly recipe and all the necessary ingredients to make that dish. Supermarket dietitians also do outreach within the larger community, speaking at hospitals and corporate wellness events and coordinating with food banks.
Even if you don’t see a dietitian in person at your store, there may be one (or more) behind the scenes working on the corporate or regional level to develop resources that make it easier and more compelling for you to make a healthy choice. Krystal Register is a dietitian who works at the regional level at Wegmans Food Markets, located in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states, where she is charged with strategizing the company’s overall health and wellness programs. Part of what she does is ensure accurate and clear labeling pointing to foods that support particular health goals, and train employees to be knowledgeable both about the products they are selling and the nutrition resources available in store. The idea is that if customers tell the deli counter worker they need a low-sodium, gluten-free product, that employee will be well versed in which items meet that criteria and can also point the customers to available printed materials and signage on low-sodium and gluten-free choices. One Wegmans’s wellness initiative takes the form of hands-on cooking experiences, such as teaching customers to pan-sear fish, for example. “Part of my goal is to get people in the store and build confidence making healthy choices,” says Register.
Supermarket dietitians do work for the store so, naturally, getting and keeping you there is part of their mission. Although they can help you make sense of the products they sell — explaining those confusing packaging labels and guiding you to the best choices on their shelves — it is worth keeping in mind that their services come with an inherent bias. It’s unlikely they would advise you to buy from a competing seller or farmers market even if that were in your best interest, for example. Also, stores often form partnerships with commodity boards and food manufacturers that could sway the information provided.
Nonetheless, it’s a worthwhile idea to tap the spectrum of health and nutrition resources at your local store, and to do so the best place to start is on its website. Once on the home page, click on the “wellness,” “health” or “nutrition” tab to get to the section where you can see the programs the store offers and the credentials of the people behind those campaigns. (If they are not registered dietitians — designated by RD or RDN — they should have an advanced nutrition degree from an accredited institution.) You might be surprised at the wealth of guidance that has been at your fingertips all along.