Navigating nutrition

by Eric Schroeder
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Consumers, who for years primarily were exposed to the health and wellness trend through product introductions from food and beverage companies, now find themselves confronting dietary decisions at nearly every stop of the day.

Children and parents now have access to technology that allows them to preview and plan school meals on-line, while vending machines that once featured high-calorie food and beverages are being phased out completely, or at the very least being restocked to contain products with less sugar and fat and more nutritional benefits.

Supermarkets, too, are taking a stand on health and wellness. Whether it is launching rating systems or creating healthier store brands, retailers are taking a proactive approach to delivering on nutrition awareness.

And it is nearly impossible to describe the changing landscape of the health and wellness trend in the retail and food service sector without mentioning the ongoing battle currently taking place between the New York State Restaurant Association (N.Y.S.R.A.) and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (D.O.H.M.H.).

The D.O.H.M.H. earlier this year passed a mandate requiring calorie counts to be posted next to foods on display and on menu boards and lists for all restaurant chains with more than 15 outlets nationwide. The N.Y.S.R.A. has fought the ruling as being unfair, and launched a final court challenge on June 12.

While many restaurants have followed through on the D.O.H.M.H.’s demands to post calorie counts, city health inspectors already have issued violation notices against 81 fast-food outlets for failure to comply, and estimates are that only a quarter of the 2,000 affected dining spots fully comply with the requirements.

The city is expected to begin issuing fines on July 18, but the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Manhattan cautioned against such action until it issues a rule on the matter. As part of the June 12 hearing, the appeals court asked the Food and Drug Administration to weigh in on the issue, to which the F.D.A. responded that the city regulation seemed constitutional because it "addresses a legitimate state interest in preventing or reducing obesity among its citizens."

The decision by New York to implement the calorie count rule comes on the heels of the city’s move to ban trans fatty acids in food outlets, another sign health and wellness is creeping into food service.

Retailers spring into action

While food rating systems have been all the rage within supermarkets of late, other steps have been taken as well by retailers looking to make a mark on health and wellness.

Earlier this month, Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway Inc. announced a partnership with Warner Bros. Consumer Products under which the two companies will develop a better-for-you line of food products for children. As part of the partnership, animated Looney Tunes characters will be featured on the new Eating Right Kids line of food and beverages to be sold at more than 1,700 Safeway locations throughout the United States and Canada. More than 100 items across 30 categories, including breakfast foods, portable meals, dairy, snacks and beverages, will be included in the line.

Eating Right Kids is an extension of the Eating Right adult platform, which was launched in April 2007 with a philosophy of offering healthier eating solutions across multiple categories with a "Spot Your Needs" easy reference system so consumers may easily identify foods that meet individual requirements.

The platform is the latest component in an ongoing Safeway initiative focused on providing health and wellness solutions to its customers. Other components of the program include FoodFlex, an on-line nutrition tool that provides personalized information about food, nutrition and alternative grocery options, and Good to Know, an on-line and in-store guide to food nutrition that features signs posted throughout Safeway stores showing the health benefits of certain products.

Count Target Corp. as another retailer focusing on health and wellness. In addition to staffing its own health and nutrition expert, the Minneapolis-based company in January eliminated all trans fat from its Archer Farms food brand, making it the first national proprietary food brand to eliminate added trans fat from its entire product portfolio.

"Removing added trans fat has quickly become a priority among the health community and for good reason," said Dr. Susan Mitchell, health and nutrition expert at Target. "Regardless of age or gender, consuming food products with added trans fats presents a host of immediate and long-term health concerns."

Associations take action

Grocery shoppers and restaurant customers also are receiving assistance in making healthier food choices thanks to efforts from various associations. California-based Healthy Dining and the National Restaurant Association teamed up in March 2007 to launch www.HealthyDiningFinder.com, a resource designed to help consumers more easily identify nutritious choices served at restaurants in all 50 states. By visiting the web site, consumers may enter specific parameters to find menu items that meet their specifications.

A little over a year after its debut, the web site has been a success, said Annika Stensson, a spokesperson for the N.R.A.

"The HealthyDiningFinder.com web site is getting great response, both from the industry and from the general public," Ms. Stensson said. "It is also getting great media coverage, including two mentions on NBC’s Today show this spring as a great resource for consumers who want to plan their dining out experience and learn how to make smart choices before even entering the restaurant."

Erica Bohm, vice-president and director of strategic partnerships for Healthy Dining, said the number of participating restaurants has grown to more than 55,000 from the 30,000 first involved at launch.

Further illustrating the success of the program is the fact more restaurants are contacting Healthy Dining about joining than before, she said.

The web site also has experienced an up-tick in visitors, with a 72% increase between May 2007 and May 2008, Ms. Bohm said. Within the next few months, the site will be enhanced with a new look, added search functionality, accessibility to mobile devices, and more.

"We’ve found positive response from consumers and also interested stakeholders, such as dietitians and employers," Ms. Bohm said. "We’re definitely seeing more focus on prevention — an unhealthy workforce is not good for the nation’s bottom line."

More recently, the American Heart Association has made it easier for consumers to shop healthy with updates to its Food Certification Program. Originally launched in 1995 to give consumers an easy, reliable system for identifying hearthealthy foods as a first step in building a sensible eating plan, the Food Certification Program in mid-March added a feature on its web site (www.mylist.heartcheckmark.org) that allows visitors to download grocery lists from Web-enabled mobile phones or personal digital assistants (P.D.A.s).

"Busy people rely on technology to keep them organized — now it’s easy to keep your grocery list on your Web-enabled mobile phone or PDA and feel confident that you are selecting foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol," said Penny Kris-Etherton, professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University.

According to the A.H.A., the ability to download grocery lists is beneficial to shoppers because although 74% of female grocery shoppers surveyed by the A.H.A. said they make a grocery list, nearly 70% said they forget to take it to the store.

Another group taking action is LunchByte Systems, Inc., which this past school year introduced two new products, MyTray and MyNutrition. The products build on the group’s participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Partnering with My-Pyramid Corporate Challenge.

MyTray is an interactive planning tool that interfaces with participating school districts’ Nutrikids Menu Planning and Nutritional Analysis Program. The program allows parents and children to go on-line to preview and pre-plan school meals based on what is served in the school cafeteria. The program also allows viewers to see the nutritional quality of their choices.

MyNutrition offers parents, teachers and children educational information, tools and interactive features related to health, nutrition and physical activity.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, June 24, 2008, starting on Page 62. Click
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