Platelet-inhibiting purple grape juice? Aisle three. Nerve-calming green tea? Aisle seven.
In response to consumers' desires to know more about the foods they eat, it seems that nearly every Center Store category is toning up these days with qualified health claims and more specific labeling.
Some of the changes are mandated by government regulators -- like those pertaining to trans fats -- while others -- lutein in canned tomatoes or dried plum juice -- are voluntary, and avidly being promoted with on-pack graphics exclaiming such information.
"Besides the obvious goals of healthier communities and consumers, this [focus on health] gives us a chance to distinguish ourselves among more traditional retailers. It's good business," Marnie Sherno, corporate dietician for 21-store Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., told SN.
These aren't necessarily new products hitting the market; rather, manufacturers are using new guidelines issued by government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration to highlight existing ingredients or nutrients that have been shown to help prevent certain diseases or medical conditions, or to boost the body's natural disease-fighting abilities to promote overall health.
While manufacturers touting product benefits is nothing new, either, many in the food industry anticipate that health will become an increasingly important attribute of a product's message as nationwide debate over obesity and diet manifests itself on the shelves of supermarkets and in the cupboards of their shoppers.
Already, changes are in the works: Labels detailing FDA-sanctioned "qualified health claims" could be appearing on some foods as early as this year. Some food companies are jumping ahead of the FDA's 2006 deadline to begin declaring trans fat on Nutrition Facts panels, or reformulating products to get rid of it altogether.
Retailers sensing this trend have been updating the way they present this new generation of food. Whether it's the use of dietician-spokesmen, additional shelf space and displays for healthier items, or inclusion of health and nutrition information on their Web sites, it's clear that retailers aren't alone in making health claims. Those weaving a wellness message into their brand, such as suburban Philadelphia-based Clemens, said they're just being good retailers.
"We're not a Whole Foods, and we're not going to be," Sherno said, referring to the Austin, Texas-based natural foods retailer. "However, we're supporting natural and organic products and wellness because we feel we can do this business responsibly."
Montvale, N.J.-based A&P has reached similar conclusions. Speaking at the Obesity-Wellness Leadership Seminar in Philadelphia last November, Bob James, A&P's vice president of marketing, described how the chain was pursuing a "cultural change" to best adjust to consumers demanding healthier foods. [See "Wellness Issues Seen Driving Big Changes in Marketing," SN, Dec. 1, 2003.] According to James' presentation, retailers who add a component of value to consumers seeking healthier products can gain customer loyalty, higher rings, and position themselves to cater to those shoppers over the long term.
Sherno, a registered dietician, joined Clemens around two years ago and has become the public face of the chain's wellness initiative. She speaks at area health fairs, leads in-store nutrition discussions, writes a monthly article focusing on health published on the Clemens Web site, trains employees to understand food-health issues, and fields questions from shoppers. Sherno said her most frequently asked question from consumers concerns healthy but easy-to-prepare meals. Much of her answer lies in what's found in Center Store.
"Generally, I help people find and take advantage of those convenient items, like bagged salad, canned tomatoes or canned beans [and] frozen vegetables," Sherno said. For example, she might recommend a meal that includes jarred garlic, canned tomatoes, couscous, olive oil, salt, pepper and some kind of quick-cooking protein, like their favorite shellfish or chicken, and a bag of prewashed spinach.
"Saute it all up. Add a whole grain like the couscous. That's very quick and very nutritious," Sherno said.
Though Clemens devotes a special section of its stores to natural and organic products, it recently began placing some natural/organic and healthy items alongside their traditional counterparts in Center Store. For instance, Clemens is merchandising the natural/organic Amy's Kitchens canned soup line next to Campbell's. This helps consumers feel less intimidated by the category, Sherno said.
"Individuals who are already shopping for natural and organic products will seek them out in a segregated section. Shoppers who've had a life event, like a heart attack or a new baby, may also seek out that section if they want to change their own habits to best suit their health and wellness needs," she explained. "Integrating opens the opportunity to additional shoppers who might not be familiar with the category and might not enter the segregated section."
While natural and organic foods tend to have a built-in association with health, many traditional Center Store products are competing on their own health aspects -- a trend that some observers, including the FDA, are expecting to intensify.
The agency last year announced that it would begin providing for "qualified health claims," or labels that detail the relationship between a food or food component and a disease or health-related condition based on a level of scientific agreement. An FDA spokesman said some products could be making such claims on their labels as soon as this summer, depending on results of the ongoing comment period, recently extended through Feb. 25. The agency hopes that qualified health claims on packages will alert consumers to healthier foods, and challenge companies to make products that compete on health.
"Rather than saying, 'I've got 22 ounces, and my competitor has only 20,' or 'This soda tastes more cherry than that one,' we're hoping the food industry will compete on the more healthful aspects of their foods," the FDA spokesman said.
Nancy Childs, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, said she feels the changes will have some effect, and that presents an opportunity for the retailer.
"I think the more you bring health information to consumers, the more aware they will become, and that's going to motivate manufacturers to reformulate or reposition their products," Childs said. "Anytime you have a chance to reposition food, it has a chance to be good for the retailer. The retailer has some room to play on the perimeter, to use foods that haven't been labeled in the past in their own way to help consumers see them."
More labels and more health claims could just as easily add to consumer confusion, others feel.
"What I hear from consumers is, 'It takes me long enough to shop without looking at every label and reading every message.' I think there's an inundation level from consumers -- when they walk into a supermarket, they get messages everywhere," said Leah McGrath, corporate dietician for Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C. "The risk is overwhelming them with too much information."