NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Supermarket retailers may be overlooking opportunities to position their meat departments as health and wellness destinations, Mary K. Young, vice president of nutrition for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said during a presentation here at the 2008 Annual Meat Conference.
To emphasize the positive health attributes of beef, pork and poultry, Young suggested three approaches. First, retailers could develop a section in their meat cases for “lean” cuts and products. Suppliers and retailers could also emphasize U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved structure/function claims on-pack, such as zinc in beef, which supports a healthy immune system. Finally, Young said, the industry should be emphasizing meat's role in a balanced diet as an all-natural, nutrient-rich source of protein.
“Any or all of these [actions] could provide a competitive advantage,” Young said. Citing data from numerous surveys, she noted that U.S. consumers have become increasingly interested in nutrition information, as well as simple advice on how to eat healthier.
Retailers, suppliers and nonprofit groups have responded by developing a plethora of nutrition profiling tools, such as the American Heart Association's “heart check” logo; the My Choice, Sensible Solutions and Smart Spot programs by Unilever, Kraft and PepsiCo, respectively; and retailer- and wholesaler-designed programs, such as Hannaford's Guiding Stars and the new ONQI system from Topco Associates.
“It used to be just the heart check logo; now, just during the last few years, we have had a proliferation of nutrition profiles,” Young said.
The problem for the meat case, however, is that most of these guidance systems focus on nutrients that consumers should limit, such as calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium. As a result, Young pointed out, a serving of a vitamin-enhanced diet soft drink can achieve a higher ranking than a serving of whole milk, based on the ways many of these systems rank foods. Similarly, meats — red meats in particular — often suffer in these rating systems because of their saturated fat content.
In order to help shoppers better understand how foods like meat and poultry can be a healthy part of a balanced diet, Young said, the Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition — a group comprising a diverse membership, including the California Avocado Commission, the Egg Nutrition Center, NCBA, the Florida Department of Citrus and the Grain Foods Foundation — has been working to develop a nutrition profiling system based on nutrient density. Nutrient density simply measures the total nutrients that a food provides, relative to calories. Fresh, whole foods on the store perimeter usually score high.
“[Consumers] have got a lot of information, but they need the ‘how to,’” said Young. “Thirty-one percent understand that calories from any source contribute equally to weight gain. But most say they still don't balance their diet. Oftentimes, if people are overweight, they're consuming a lot of empty calories. The premise is about profiling a food based on the total package of nutrients.”
But, regardless of how the nutrient density profiling system is ultimately received, Young noted, retailers have many opportunities to position meats as all-natural, nutrient-rich foods.
Many categories, ranging from nutrition bars to enhanced waters, call out their protein content these days. But, rather than getting protein from fortified foods, shoppers could be getting it from a natural source, such as meat or poultry.
“Every one of the items that you sell is an excellent source of protein,” Young told her audience. “It's a powerful message for consumers.”
Young predicted that consumer understanding of — and demand for — protein will continue to grow as the Baby Boomer generation continues aging and becomes more concerned about maintaining active lifestyles. Similarly, meat department managers could help shoppers understand that meats are naturally nutrient-rich by highlighting the vitamins and minerals they contain.
Young also suggested that retailers simply collect a selection of meats and other meat case products that fit the U.S. Department of Agriculture's definition of “lean,” or 10 grams of fat, less than 4 grams of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 gram serving. A special display or section could go a long way toward appealing to health-conscious shoppers, she said.
“Your meat case is leaner than ever before. All of the proteins that you sell have several different ‘lean’ versions — products that meet that government definition. Our research shows that ‘lean’ is shorthand for ‘better for you.’ It's a modifier that lifts healthy perception of those items.”