One of the food industry's biggest trends is alive and well in Center Store as manufacturers launch — and retailers highlight — dry groceries that can be part of a sensible diet.
In response to rising childhood obesity rates and overall health concerns, manufacturers increasingly are introducing reduced-fat, whole-grain, sugar-free, portion-controlled and other better-for-you options. Take Interstate Bakeries, Kansas City, Mo., which just launched a 100-calorie pack of Hostess cupcakes.
“Manufacturers are modifying their products to better serve the needs of consumers,” Jacqueline Gomes, Pathmark's new registered dietitian, told SN. Paulette Thompson, health and wellness manager for Stop & Shop/Giant-Landover, agreed.
“More manufacturers are responding to the health needs of consumers,” she said.
Many of the manufacturer and retailer efforts stem from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' dietary guidelines, and the related MyPyramid food guidance system.
“Manufacturers are providing solutions to meeting the goals of the dietary guidelines and MyPyramid,” said Alison Kretser, nutrition and health senior director at the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Products Association, Washington.
For instance, MyPyramid recommends that half of all grains consumed be whole grains. Manufacturers, in turn, are responding by offering more whole grain cereals, pasta and other grain-based products.
“There's been a lot of innovation in side dishes and in frozens, where whole grain pasta is offered in entrees,” Kretser noted.
Along with whole grains, portion-controlled packaging is taking the Center Store by storm, thanks to Kraft's launch of 100-calorie Nabisco snacks several years ago. The company has since added to the line with new cookie and cracker varieties, including Wheat Thins Multigrain Chips and the first 100-calorie nutrition energy snack bar, Balance Bar 100 Calories Bar.
The new portion-controlled Hostess packs contain three mini cupcakes whose total calorie count is 100.
Targeting adult women, the three cupcakes add up to 1⅓ ounces, down from 1¾ ounces for a regular Hostess cupcake.
Along with the smaller serving size, the cupcakes were reformulated. Some sugars and fats were removed, while fiber was added. The result: Calories went down from 180 to 100, fat dropped from 6 to 3 grams, and carbs slid from 30 to 22 grams, according to David Leavitt, Interstate Bakeries' snack marketing vice president.
“Consumers are looking for health and wellness opportunities when they snack, but for years they've been somewhat limited when it comes to taste,” he said. “That's why we focused not only on calorie control, but also on taste.”
Among other introductions, General Mills debuted Progresso soup with 50% less sodium last year; Del Monte kicked off a new line of no-sugar-added canned fruits; and Unilever launched Choices, a new nutrition labeling program that identifies products with limited trans fat, saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.
“There are many healthy choices, such as no-salt-added canned vegetables, whole wheat pasta, whole grain cereals and 100% juices,” said Thompson. “Packaged food can be part of a healthy diet.”
Interstate Bakeries has not announced whether other Hostess brands, such as Twinkies, will be added to the 100-calorie line, but Leavitt said innovation is one of the company's core strategies and that such innovation will tie in with consumer trends.
“There's definitely a growing recognition by manufacturers that consumers not only want convenience, but also more health and wellness products,” said Leavitt.
One challenge is helping consumers recognize and understand the many new choices on retail shelves.
To help steer shoppers in the right direction, many retailers have hired registered dietitians to develop consumer nutrition programs.
Pathmark Stores, Carteret, N.J., runs Healthy Steps, a 3-month-old health education program that includes a free newsletter published every other month, and a corresponding column in the retailer's weekly circular.
The column highlights various healthy foods. For American Heart Month, it featured heart-healthy items like Welch's 100% grape juice, Ronzoni Healthy Harvest pasta and Campbell's Healthy Request soup.
Items featured in the newsletter are bundled in an in-store display. About six items — mostly dry groceries — are featured each promotion cycle.
“A lot of consumers are confused about what they can and cannot eat,” said Gomes, who was hired last year to develop and execute the program. “Healthy Steps is designed to help them make decisions.”
Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., also makes consumers aware of the wide range of sensible foods and beverages throughout the store through its Living Well, Eating Smart nutrition and wellness program.
Headed by Carrie Taylor, the chain's registered dietitian, the program includes a newsletter that highlights better-for-you foods.
In the Center Store, Taylor often promotes the value of foods that are trans fat-free, contain whole grains or are fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. Portion-controlled packaging is also stressed.
“When I talk to consumers about treats, I highlight 100-calorie packs, which provide the taste people want,” she said.
As with Pathmark, Big Y's Living Well, Eating Smart program highlighted heart-healthy foods last month. They included No Yolks egg noodles, Bush's baked beans, Fiber One cereal, sugar-free canned fruit, no-salt-added canned vegetables and Smart Balance peanut butter with omega-3s.
Stop & Shop/Giant, meanwhile, just kicked off a new wellness program with the Prince George's County Health Department in which a health department dietitian conducts store tours at six Giant stores in Maryland. Tour participants learn how to read food labels correctly, make healthier food choices, plan healthier meals and make simple changes in meal preparation to help prevent the onset of diabetes, hypertension and obesity.
“In Center Store, there are specific aisles that are the source of confusion, such as ice cream, which has so many different options, from low-fat to light to fat-free,” she said.
Thompson said Giant has benefited from the health department's resources. “We don't have enough dietitians to conduct the tours ourselves, so partnering with the health department enables us to reach more people,” she said.
The two-hour tours accommodate 12 people and cost $15 per person. Each participant gets a $10 Giant gift card and a tote bag.