Dietitian On Aisle Four: Grocery Stores Are Calling In Health Experts

By Greg Trotter
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Historically, supermarket chains have employed dietitians at the corporate level, but increasingly they’re deploying them in stores to engage with customers. For women in business with a focus on nutrition, you may want to check with YOUR local grocer about creating some unique opportunities together. It could be good for business!


Has anyone tried quinoa before?”

No hands went up.

“We’ll try some today,” said Allison Parker, a dietitian employed by Chicago-area grocer Mariano’s, to a group of eight mothers with young children on a tour of a suburban location.

Parker is one of a growing number of registered dietitians who ply their trade in grocery stores instead of health care settings. As consumers have turned toward food they consider healthier and more sustainable, food companies have followed suit by marketing to popular diet trends and shifting preferences.

Such changes have made grocery shopping a downright bewildering experience, particularly for shoppers on a tight budget. What does gluten-free mean? What is good fat and how is it different from bad fat? Do I really need protein in my Cheerios?

Increasingly, grocery stores are investing in health and wellness professionals, including registered dietitians, to help customers navigate the myriad decisions on each shopping trip, industry experts say.

“It’s growing by leaps and bounds,” said Phil Lempert, a grocery store analyst who runs the Supermarket Guru website and who, just a few years ago, founded a trade group called the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance.

Today, about 11,000 U.S. grocery stores are served by a dietitian, Lempert said, though many dietitians, such as Parker, cover more than one store. Historically, supermarket chains have employed dietitians at the corporate level, but increasingly they’re deploying them in stores to engage with customers, he said.

“It says, we do more than just pile it high and sell it cheap,” Lempert said. “We care about your health.”

Of course, grocery stores aren’t charities. But employing dietitians pays off for retailers, either through the sale of healthy food products or the “soft” return on investment of burnishing a reputation of a healthy mission, which can lead to more foot traffic, said Joan Driggs, editorial director of Progressive Grocer, a trade publication.

Parker and another dietitian cover all 36 Mariano’s stores in the Chicago area. They lead tours for various types of customers, seniors, young professionals, low-income families, fitness fanatics, and perform cooking demonstrations. They’re also available for one-on-one consultations, which are typically set up through the pharmacy.

A registered dietitian for more than 10 years, Parker used to work for Strong Memorial Hospital in upstate New York. She said working in a grocery store, as opposed to a health care setting, tends to be more rewarding because customers who seek her out are actively trying to eat healthier.

But it’s also challenging, she said, in part because working as a dietitian in a grocery store is a relatively new frontier.
“I love being able to make an impact on a customer right at the point of purchase, but also that can be frustrating because it’s like: How do I do that?” said Parker, 34.

About 96 percent of grocery stores are committed to expanding health and wellness programs, according to a 2014 report by the Food Marketing Institute, which surveyed 29 grocery chains estimated to represent about 6,800 stores. And 62 percent of stores surveyed employ store dietitians to help them achieve that goal.

Some companies are taking health education beyond store walls.

Akua Woolbright has led the healthy eating outreach effort for Whole Foods Market in Detroit, talking to community members in Detroit wherever she could find them, including beauty salons, churches and schools.

Next, Woolbright and a colleague plan to do the exact same thing in Chicago’s impoverished Englewood neighborhood, before and after a Whole Foods store opens there in September.

“We will give Englewood our very best and hopefully they will receive it,” said Woolbright, who earned a doctorate in nutritional science at Howard University.

“What I think is store nutrition programs, if they’re done right, can help weed through the many contradictory messages and help make sense of it all,” Woolbright said. “And in some communities, where there hasn’t been a large grocery store in years, and you’ve had to rely on fast food and corner stores for years, maybe there’s added opportunity for education.”

On a recent weekday, Mariano’s Parker co-led a store tour for a small group of parents and children from a city elementary school, a mostly Latino school where 98 percent of students are considered low-income, according to state data.

Starting with shots of green smoothie, the group slowly worked its way through the store’s various departments, with the bulk of the time spent in the produce, meat and dairy departments on the store’s perimeter. Parker and Sheri Brazley, a chef with Common Threads, a nonprofit that fights childhood obesity, took turns dispensing advice on how to eat healthy on a tight budget.

Ivette Guadarrama, a parent resource teacher at the school, translated their message into Spanish for the mothers.

After the tour, Guadarrama said the last group visit to Mariano’s spurred conversation among school parents on cooking healthy meals. So she decided to bring another group.

“I’m actually more conscious of how I eat too,” said Guadarrama, 24.
A dietitian’s perspective: How to shop healthy

If you’ve ever felt woozy in a grocery store, standing in front of the Great Wall of Cereal, endeavoring to discern one box of clusters and flakes from the next, Allison Parker might be able to help.

Parker works as a dietitian in 18 of the 36 Chicago-area stores of Mariano’s, a brand that Roundy’s, a subsidiary of grocery giant Kroger, operates under in the Chicago area. A registered dietitian for more than 10 years, Parker says she’s still learning how to be effective in a grocery store setting. She empathizes with overwhelmed shoppers struggling to parse truth from marketing smoke and mirrors.

Here’s what Parker had to say about helping shoppers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What are the pros and cons to being a retail dietitian as opposed to working in a health care setting?

A: It is like unchartered territory. It’s such a new area for dietitians to work in and it’s an exciting area, but it can also be very scary because there’s no one to really go to and ask, How did you do this? And how did you have success? It’s been fun, but also scary at times.

Q: These are such confusing times to be a shopper. … Some labels are more meaningful than others. What does “natural” mean?

A: It doesn’t mean anything, really.

Q: How do you navigate all of the labeling to help consumers make decisions?

A: My philosophy is always just really encouraging the perimeter (of the store), the foods that don’t even have labels, because they’re going to be healthiest, usually. And helping (customers) to really start looking at labels, which they may not have done before, and really read ingredient lists. Can I pronounce all those items that are in this food? And if not, maybe making them think twice about purchasing that item or finding a better option.

I always focus on cereal, bread and yogurt because five, 10 years ago, we didn’t have this many choices. And I find those to be the most overwhelming sections of the store. Most people know they have to eat more produce, but once they get in the cereal aisle, it’s like: Why is there is so much?

Q: And that overwhelming selection has to do with how companies are marketing?

A: Yeah, for sure. … Pick the box up and actually look it. Look past what the marketers are trying to do.

Q: How do you handle dieting trends like the paleo diet?

A: In March, I did a cooking seminar on all the fad diets. We talked about all the big ones in the news right now: detoxing, cleansing, juicing, paleo, Whole 30, one called the werewolf diet _ that one was new to me. All of these have one thing in common: They’re promoting or promising something huge and they’re not necessarily delivering over time. … My goal is try to help (customers) navigate through the science.

Q: But sometimes the science changes, right?

A: Exactly. Fat right now is a big one. I’m still on the fence. I still recommend 1 percent or skim milk. But now there’s stuff coming out saying we don’t have to worry so much about the type of fat in milk. So it’s always changing. That’s why I like nutrition. It’s a young science. We didn’t even know half the vitamins and minerals back 40 or 50 years ago and now we do. I like it, but it’s also frustrating. Because one day eggs are good and the next day they’re not.

Q: And “good fat” is making a comeback, right? As opposed to “bad fat.” How do you treat that?

A: It’s so cliche, but everything in moderation. I just feel like as long as you’re not overdoing it in any one section of the store or any one food group, and eating things don’t have a lot of ingredients, focusing on fruits and ingredients. … I think that’s where people struggle the most. My classes are very fruit and vegetable heavy.

Q: Do you feel like you’re constantly battling the marketing?

A: Yep, I have a bag of Tostitos at home that came in a nice, pretty box last week. … They’re not bad, but it’s hard for me to be like, “Let’s push Frito-Lay today!”

But I do come from the everything-can-fit-as-long-as-you’re-not-overdoing-it standpoint.

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