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RETAIL VIEW: Healthy food trend continues at retail

Stop & Shop and Giant, two sister retailers under the Ahold umbrella, are the latest grocery store chains to help their customers find nutritious alternatives through an in-store labeling system.

In early January, more than 550 of these stores up and down the East Coast rolled out the Healthy Ideas campaign, which identifies more than 3,000 food choices that are designed to give consumers a healthy alternative.

Faith Weiner, senior director of public affairs for Stop & Shop, who was serving as spokesperson for the identical rollout at both chains, said that the goal of the program is to simplify the identification of healthy food for the consumer. She said that many consumers want to find healthier alternatives for what is typically on their shopping list each week. This program, through label identification, points to "healthy ideas" that consumers might consider as they are going down the aisle and filling their shopping cart.

Ms. Weiner said that the company's web site identifies many "simple swaps" that show consumers how they can switch from one item to another, which results in a healthier choice for their families. For example, a lasagna recipe on the Giant Foods web site advocates using sodium-free canned tomatoes, low-fat ricotta cheese and ground turkey to reduce the intake of calories, fat and sodium.

More than 3,000 items on the shelves of the two supermarket chains met the requirements of the Healthy Ideas criteria. Those criteria were identified by using the guidelines of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as articulated in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the USDA's MyPyramid.

There is no effort to judge the relative healthiness of these items; instead each item in the store either makes the list or it does not.

Ms. Weiner said that research shows that while consumers are looking for help in making healthy choices, they want a simple program, and this meets that standard. Most of the 3,000 items are identified through in-store labeling. Some store-brand items have already incorporated the proprietary "Healthy Ideas" logos on their packaging. In addition, Ms. Weiner said that virtually every item in the produce departments fits the "Healthy Ideas" criteria, so general signage is being used to connote that fact rather than individual logos on every price tag.

In addition, the web sites of Stop & Shop and Giant Foods contain all 3,000 items. The list is very diverse and includes items from almost every category. Besides the expected items such as produce, yogurt and green teas, Lays Light Ruffles potato chips, Wonder Bread hot dog buns and Post's Cocoa Pebbles cereal make the cut.

For a product to pass muster, the Giant Foods' press release said it has to "have less fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium," and it must be "a good source of at least one nutrient (protein, fiber, vitamins A or C, or the minerals calcium or iron)." The term "good source" is defined as having at least 10 percent of the recommended daily value of one of those nutrients.

Stop & Shop and Giant Foods join other supermarket chains that have gone even a step further in helping the consumer identify healthy choices. This past fall, Price Chopper, based in Rotterdam, NY, and Hy-Vee Inc. in West Des Moines, IA, began scoring more than 45,000 products on a 1-100 scale of nutritional benefit. Both stores are part of the Topco Associates buying program, which has a working relationship with the NuVal program developed at the Yale University Prevention Research Center.

NuVal, which previously was called ONQI (Overall Nutritional Quality Index, The Produce News, Jan. 14, 2008), uses a complicated mathematical equation to rate a product's nutritional content. One hundred is the top score with 1 being the lowest point total an item can receive. David Katz, director of the Yale Research Center, applauded the Ahold chains for taking this step to help consumers, but he questioned its utility. "I commend any effort to help befuddled shoppers easily and reliably distinguish better from less good nutrition, and so I commend these companies for taking this action. However, this system is, when all is said and done, simply a 'makes' or 'doesn't make' criteria system, an either/or. That is very little guidance among the 45,000 foods in an average supermarket."

Dr. Katz said that the ONQI/NuVal system provides "continuous guidance across the 1 to 100 range of scores so the relative differences in nutritional quality are always available at a glance. This is vastly more information - like the difference between a compass that simply points in a basic direction, and GPS that tells you exactly where you are and how to get where you want to go. Either/or systems offer a compass; the ONQI is GPS."

While he does not know the various calculations that have gone into the Ahold system, he said that developing a nutritional guidance system is difficult and requires the inputting of much detailed information. He is concerned that simpler systems will give consumers incomplete or poor information.

"The ONQI and NuVal are beneficiaries of two years of dedicated work by 15 scientists, 12 of whom are top opinion leaders in the field. And the work was unfettered by any business interest. It was simply the best science that could be done."

NuVal spokesperson Matthew Drewry said that a number of other retail outlets under the Topco umbrella will be announcing implementation of the ONQI/NuVal system in their stores within the next couple of months.