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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Star Tribune Article Highlights Healthy Eating Practices

Signs point the way to healthful eating
MATT McKINNEY, Star Tribune

Amid what's widely recognized as a national obesity epidemic, supermarkets have taken a page from the family doctor to instruct shoppers on healthy eating, with Supervalu the latest chain to adopt a program that uses easy-to-read tags to identify items high in fiber and whole grains or low in hazards such as sodium, cholesterol and sugar.

The tags join a cacophony of signs, labels, advertising and on-the-box health claims meant to show people what they're buying, but because the new Supervalu tags are about the size of a playing card or bigger and hung on the edge of store shelves, they're likely to make it easier for shoppers to quickly find foods that meet basic dietary requirements.

Supervalu, which unrolled the new program at all Minnesota Cub Foods stores on Sunday, says its "Nutrition IQ" program treads lightly in an area where supermarkets traditionally haven't strayed.

"We're not there to police what people buy or what they eat," said Supervalu spokeswoman Haley Meyer. "If they are looking for a particular health attribute, we're here to make it easier for them."

Yet the company is hardly alone in telling customers that it's wise to shop healthy.

Supermarkets in Minnesota, including Kowalski's and all Safeway outlets, have some kind of store program that steers shoppers away from the high-fat, high-sodium diets blamed for the nation's weight problem.

Overweight adults make up one-fourth of the population of most U.S. states and in some areas approach one-third. (Minnesota's overweight population registered at 24.3 percent of the state last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.) The fattening of America has contributed to soaring rates for diabetes, some types of cancer and heart disease.

Kowalski's, with nine Twin Cities locations, rolled out a nutrition labeling program last year that's meant to show people "there's a lot of great food out there that's tasty and good for you," said Deb Kowalski, a company spokeswoman.

Their labels don't specify why a certain food should be eaten (like "low sodium" or "low fat"), but Kowalski said an item won't qualify unless it meets several criteria related to the food's nutrients, fat, sodium, cholesterol and added sugars or artificial ingredients.

Shoppers at Safeway stores, meanwhile, can opt into a program through their buyer's cards that tracks their purchases. If they enter the number of people they're shopping for, a company website will warn them if they're bought excess sodium, sugar or cholesterol for their household, for example.

Shoppers can click on an item they've purchased on a recent trip to find healthier alternatives, said a Safeway spokeswoman.

No tag for jellybeans
At Supervalu, not everything will get a tag, even if it has a health benefit. The program doesn't accept things like jelly beans, for example, despite the fact that they're low in cholesterol. And not everything that seems healthy has the right nutrient to qualify for one of the labels. The Rice Krispies cereal at the Apple Valley Cub store, for example, didn't get a tag, nor did the plain version of Special K.

The reason is that those foods don't meet the Food and Drug Administration's nutrient content claims, the regulations that underpin Supervalu's program.

The FDA's nutrient content claims cover the language on packaged foods such as soups and cereals, with everything from calories to saturated fats, sugar content to sodium, carefully regulated to prevent companies from making inappropriate claims.

A food that says "low sodium" on the label, for example, must have 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving, while "very low sodium" means 35 mg of sodium or less. A "low fat" food means 3 grams or less of total fat.

Supervalu says about 10 percent of the items in its stores will eventually carry a Nutrition IQ tag, with one of 11 signs possible for levels of fiber, calcium, sodium, saturated fat, whole grains or protein. None of the labels will warn people away from eating too much of anything.

Customer opinions vary
The new labels went up in all Cub stores Sunday, although shoppers at stores in Burnsville and Apple Valley saw the labels arrive a few weeks ago in a test of the program. Shoppers there last week had a variety of reactions.

"I don't know how helpful it will be," said Debbie Holman of Apple Valley, who explained that she already knows which foods provide a health kick. She's made a practice of reading the nutrition labels found on the side of most products, and doesn't always trust the advertised health claims of some foods. "I think food companies like to sell food any way they can," Holman said.

Some shoppers said they were unconcerned about their foods. "I'm going to die eating the things I like," said Charles Morgenroth of Apple Valley. He said he doesn't plan to follow the store's health guidelines.

Beverly Erstad of Farmington said she found the labels helpful. "I have things I watch for, fiber and things," Erstad said. She also reads ingredient lists carefully. "If the first thing is sugar, it's a no-no."

Deb Kowalski said shoppers at her namesake store seem to have shifted some purchases since Kowalski's stores hung informational tags last year. She cited an uptick in the sales of low sodium V-8 vegetable juice after a "Good Foods for Good Health" tag was hung on it.

That makes sense to University of Minnesota nutritionist Ben Senauer, who said research shows that most of us shop by habit, but remain susceptible to impulses, usually driven by price but sometimes by other factors.

"Most shoppers are very time conscious when they're in the supermarket. You want to get in and out of there. We're talking seconds that somebody's going to scan a category," Senauer said.

"When you've got nutritional information like this -- pow! There it is -- and it works into these seconds when you make a decision."

What do YOU think? Leave us a comment on how well you think nutritional information is being conveyed to consumers.

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