Conventional supermarkets prepare consumers for a whole new way of shopping for health
GO BY THE NUMBERS, or be guided by the stars. Either way, the destination is smarter shopping and better eating.
This is the simple proposition being offered to consumers who patronize stores that use either the Overall Nutritional Quality Index marketed by Topco Associates or the Guiding Stars nutrition rating system introduced in 2006 by Hannaford Bros. Both use different processes but share the same goal: to make shopping for healthful foods easier — regardless of aisle, whatever the category.
“It's the first time that a system or tool or measurement has come along to this degree, that encompasses the entire store from an overall standpoint,” said Dennis McIntyre, executive vice president of marketing for Stater Bros. Markets, San Bernardino, Calif. The chain has signed up to use the 1-to-100 rating program offered by Topco.
Equally important is the objectivity the indices possess. All products — branded and private-label, fresh and packaged — receive scores based on a set of science-based nutritional criteria, and they cannot be influenced or changed unless the product itself is reformulated or otherwise improved.
The implications for supermarket operators are enormous. These programs offer an unprecedented opportunity for them to take a leadership position at a time when nutritional advice is fragmented and often contradictory. The fact that this guidance is now available, at the point of purchase, makes it even better.
THE TOWER OF BABBLE
Until recently, consumers got information about an item's health attributes primarily from third-party organizations like the American Heart Association and its heart-check mark program, or manufacturers themselves who rated their own brands with their own set of criteria.
Now they have other options.
Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, inaugurated the nation's first-ever nutrition rating program in September 2006. Called Guiding Stars, it attracted headlines and garnered praise for its easy-to-follow platform: one star for foods with “good” nutritional values; two stars for those with “better” values; and three stars for those with the “best” nutrition. Those with no stars either did not qualify or were not rated. The system is based on numerous scientific and government sources, and was developed by a scientific advisory panel convened on Hannaford's behalf.
Hannaford has since been joined by Topco Associates. Late last year, the Skokie, Ill.-based supply cooperative announced the launch of the Overall Nutritional Quality Index. Developed by Dr. David Katz and a panel of 12 experts at the Yale University-Griffin Hospital Prevention Research Center, ONQI is six pages of “mind-numbing computer programming,” a complex algorithm that includes 30 distinct nutrient entries like vitamins, minerals, antioxidant families, fiber, glycemic loads, and quality of proteins and fats.
“Essentially, what it does is ask the question, ‘What nutrients are in this food, and how concentrated are the nutrients in this food relative to the recommended concentration of those nutrients in a healthy diet?’” said Katz. “All the math is basically wrapped around that very simple concept.”
Luckily, consumers don't need to be mathematicians to decipher the index. All they see is a final ranking of between 1 and 100: The higher the score, the better a product is for you.
Guiding Stars and ONQI use a methodology that allows consumers to make comparisons both within a category and across them. So, for example, they could check ONQI scores on two different cans of green beans within the grocery section, or compare the cans to a bag of frozen beans.
“There's a lot of marketing in the store today that's trying to make consumers believe that certain products are better for them,” said McIntyre. “And that's really not the case with some of them.”
Jeff Posner, Topco's executive vice president, said the company already had five elements of a corporate wellness platform in place for its retail members, including its popular Full Circle line of organic private-label products. But other goals remained elusive.
“One of them was to put together some kind of common communication system that would eliminate what we call internally the ‘Tower of Babble,’ where everyone is saying something different to consumers and where more information is actually less knowledge,” he said.
The “tower” has been built by the government, food manufacturers, fitness experts, research studies, the medical community and even retailers themselves. Though their intentions are good, the end result is confusion, doubt — even suspicion. An air of self-interest can hang over programs like PepsiCo's SmartSpot and Kraft's Sensible Solution, even though they are endorsed by leading medical authorities and based on government nutrition standards. Additionally, the standards only apply to the manufacturer's own product line.
“If a company sets its own criteria for which foods qualify and which don't, it will undoubtedly set them so lots of foods qualify,” said New York University professor and author Marion Nestle. “That's why the Hannaford experience was so telling. The chain got independent nutrition scientists to set the criteria.”
The initial success and positive publicity surrounding Hannaford's Guiding Stars program in 2006 showed that consumers wanted shelf-level assistance in deciding what foods to buy for themselves and their families.
“Consumers told Hannaford that they didn't want the ‘food police,’ but would prefer to know what the most nutritious choices are as they shop, with a simple, easy-to-use approach,” Caren Epstein, the retailer's director of external communications, said, referring to systems used in Europe that are seen by shoppers here as a bit too intrusive. “The stoplight program, which has been used in the U.K., indicates products that are not recommended or are bad choices. This is a significant departure.”
Representatives of both Hannaford and Topco say supermarkets have expressed keen interest in implementing one system or the other. The timing is right: Retailers have both better products and services to offer to wellness-minded shoppers; and consumers themselves at least express interest in the idea of living more healthfully.
Some executives think nutrition rating guides will become the preferred tool in getting those consumers to walk the walk.
“Our customers are very confused from the standpoint of the shelf, of how to read nutritional labeling or to put that in perspective against another product,” said McIntyre. “Until now, there was really no way to understand that information, to put it all together.”
That's precisely what officials at Topco were looking to remedy when they heard about Katz's nutrition index. The simple 1-to-100 scale upon which ONQI was based seemed an ideal answer, since it required little knowledge of nutrition in order for it to work. Katz compared ONQI to a car: Most people don't understand how motors operate, he said, yet they are able to drive just fine. In this case, consumers don't have to know the mechanics of ONQI to use it effectively, either.
“For the consumer, it's a turnkey system,” he said.
The universal nature of these systems is what impressed Ric Jurgens, president and chief executive officer of Hy-Vee, Des Moines, Iowa, when he signed up his 223 stores for ONQI.
“It not only makes the decision-making easier at the shelf, it allows customers of all types to be cognizant of the food value when they make the decision,” he said. “This will make it extremely easy for any consumer to judge every single food and its relative value to their diet. It doesn't matter if it's a single orange, or a package of cereal or a bag of candy.”
Jurgens, who is also chairman of Topco Associates, sees ONQI fitting in nicely with Hy-Vee's ongoing health initiatives. The chain has steadily been adding dietitians, who each oversee small groups of stores; there are currently more than 100 employed throughout Hy-Vee's market area, said Jurgens. These specialized associates will be a key interpreter of ONQI when it's rolled out to stores later this year.
“We have strong evidence that people want help in dealing with their health issues of all types, and not just food,” Jurgens said. “It's not every customer, and it's not every item in the store that they're worried about. But I do think the evidence is compelling, and I think we should step up and help them.”
MAKING IT WORK
Imagine an endcap reserved only for back-to-school snacks and beverages that score high on the ONQI scale. Or, what reaction might shoppers have when they see family meal solutions garnering at least two Guiding Stars, grouped within a single section in the frozens aisle?
In both cases, the retailer gets credit for helping to make shopping easier for the consumer. The fact that the displays highlight better-for-you choices engenders the shopper's gratitude. It's one of the potential side effects of nutrition rating systems, and it's one retailers will gladly suffer.
“We've gained a lot of loyalty and trust from our consumers. When you develop a relationship with them over the years by providing information that has helped them, they look to you for more and more information,” said McIntyre of Stater Bros. “Our consumers are looking for a way to help them make decisions that are important to their families. So who are they going to ask for help? They're going to ask the person they trust, which happens to be their local grocer.”
Programs like ONQI become “value-added” for both shoppers looking for better ways to eat, and retailers, who are perceived as a destination for unbiased nutrition information on each and every food and beverage item under their roof.
“One of the things we think consumers are sensitive to, and would challenge, are systems that either are not independent or don't appear to be independent,” observed Steve Lauer, president and chief executive of Topco.
Posner said there are even potential benefits for vendors. Using ONQI and eggs as an example, he pointed out that on a “cost per ONQI point basis,” eggs are the most cost-effective source of protein in the store.
“That's an important piece of information for consumers, and if you're the American Egg Board, it's something you might want to point out, relative to other proteins,” he said. “In a way, we might be redefining what ‘categories’ are from a consumer standpoint.”
Industry observers note that it's been a long time since such a rich opportunity presented itself to the food industry. And the ability to help change the way people actually shop is perhaps the most fascinating possibility with nutrition rating systems.
“It may have been easier to have heeded the warnings and take a more timid tack,” said Epstein. “But, rather than choosing a standpoint of fear, Hannaford leadership approached this as an opportunity, asking, ‘What kind of difference could we make if we created something truly bold and different that actually helped customers make better choices?'”
The fact that both Topco and Hannaford are offering to license their systems to any retailer answers those questions, and then some. It soundly affirms the new level of leadership retailers are willing to take on in the war against America's dietary ills, one battle at a time.
“A lot of times it's not big things. It's the small changes that people make, a little at a time, that can make a real big difference at the end of the day,” said McIntyre. “And that's what you're trying to do. You're trying to get people moving in some sort of direction that's going to help them.”
|Almonds, dry roasted||73|
|Sunflower seeds, dry roasted, salted||40|
|Ground beef, cooked at home||31|