Several supermarket chains, from Kroger to H-E-B, are incorporating healthy-eating campaigns into their overall store experiences. This move, in advance of changing food label requirements, is causing food manufacturers to change practice. Consumers, so far, are responding positively.

How much added sugar should a woman consume in a day? At Marsh Supermarkets in Indiana, an on-staff dietitian will happily answer that question via personal email.

Photographer: Sean Proctor/Bloomberg

Expect more supermarket chains to offer such health-conscious services. Several national and regional chains, from Marsh to Kroger Co., are incorporating healthy-eating campaigns, staff and even food-rating systems into their overall store experiences. This move is causing the largest food manufacturers, including Kellogg, to scramble to meet higher nutrition expectations. So far, consumer demand is supporting the movement.

This trend has extended well beyond offering organic produce to scrutinizing the ingredients of packaged and processed foods that have become the staples of many kitchen tables. The upcoming, 2018 changes to what is reported on food labels – including the first time added sugar amounts will be listed – are likely propelling the move.

Or perhaps regulatory changes are simply supporting consumer demand. Either way, supermarket chains are assuming a more interactive role in healthy-eating campaigns, and as they do so their food suppliers are being pressured to follow suit.

Among the grocery examples:

H-E-B: The large family-owned grocery chain employs an on-staff culinary nutritionist, Charlotte Samuel, who shares a series of 500-calorie recipes as well as meatless Monday dishes on the chain’s online health and wellness page. H-E-B also owns a “healthy and delicious” Pinterest board, with recipes that appeal to its more aspirational shoppers.

Marsh Supermarkets: This Midwestern chain employs an in-house dietitian, Mary Snell, as its director of nutrition and wellness. She shares healthy recipes, appears on local TV and takes customer nutrition questions from the Marsh website. Marsh also operates a healthy-label rating system, called Guiding Stars, which takes the confusion out of reading food labels by emphasizing smarter food choices.

Target: The mass merchant in 2015 said it would shift its food focus from major suppliers such as General Mills, Kraft and Kellogg to smaller, more natural brands. The company based this decision, it said, on consumer preferences for healthier, more natural foods. Food accounted for 21 percent of Target’s overall revenue in 2015, second to household essentials (26 percent). Apparel and accessories accounted for 19 percent.

Aldi: The low-price chain is introducing a line of meat products free of antibiotics, added hormones, steroids or animal byproducts. The Never Any! line includes chicken breasts, hickory bacon, whole chicken, chicken breast tenderloins and chicken sausage.

Kroger: The nation’s largest supermarket chain’s Simple Truth and Simple Truth Organic lines of food are free of 101 artificial preservatives and ingredients that customers said they do not want in their food. The Simple Truth line generated 2015 sales of roughly $1.5 billion, compared with about $1.3 billion in 2014, CEO Rodney McMullen told gatherers at a conference in March, and both have recorded double-digit identical sales growth for several years.

“It’s The Lifestyle People Choose”

Whether consumers are committed long-term to pay slightly more for healthier foods, as Kroger, Target and others say, shakes out in the numbers.

Kroger, for one, is optimistic enough to have launched a new store format to cater to natural, sustainable and organic food preferences, called Main & Vine. Granted, the format may be a competitive response to Whole Foods and its lower-cost chain, 365. Either way, Kroger said it has seen a general trend toward healthier eating from its own natural and organic business over the last three to five years, executives said.

“I think it’s just becoming more and more of the lifestyle people choose to live with, eating healthier, preparing food at home,” Mike Schlotman, chief financial officer of Kroger, told those at the March conference.

Research backs this up. Consumers are calling for more transparency in how food crops are grown and are demanding more “free-from” products, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s 2016 Power of Produce consumer research study.

Soda Taxes and Kellogg’s Center Store

Consumer demand begets supermarket demand. And once the biggest grocery chains start scrutinizing labels and supporting healthier lifestyles, their food suppliers are pressured to follow suit.

Also causing pressure are pending changes to U.S. Nutrition Facts labels in 2018 – the first in 20 years. Key among the new requirements will be listings of added sugars, a hot issue these days. In other countries, similar efforts are resulting in taxes on sugary drinks. Britain’s Conservative government recently added a soda tax to its budget, thanks largely to a dogged campaign led by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Mexico passed a similar law in 2013.

Here in the states, New York lawmakers are considering safety labels on sugary drinks, and some food manufacturers are becoming proactive. The cereal giant Kellogg, for example, has launched a dedicated website for supermarkets, called “Center Store Growth,” filled with headers such as “Nourish Shopper Loyalty” and “Marketing to the 21st century Multicultural Family.”

The maker of Pop-Tarts and Corn Flakes also includes consumer-focused content on the site, with stories like “The Basics of Fiber” and “Five Tips to Get the Most From Breakfast” (hint: cereal is part of it). The good news, according to one story about the popularity of cereal, is that Rice Krispies contains just 4 grams of sugar.

Which circles us back to my opening question about added sugar, and how much an adult woman should consume. According to the Marsh Supermarkets dietitian, who responded by email, the answer is about 24 grams, or six teaspoons – a fraction of average consumption today.

That’s good information, and a pretty effective way of sweetening the customer experience – without compromising anyone’s health.

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