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Buying Smart: Sugars in Moderation at the Grocery Store

August 5, 2014

I’m a nutrition consultant for various food and beverage companies, but my opinions are my own.

Stocking up on groceries and figuring out what and how to eat healthy is more challenging these days than ever before. Despite the USDA Dietary Guidelines, MyPlate, and decades of diet books lining bookstore shelves, the ever-changing nutrition information that makes headlines doesn’t help consumers make confident and informed decisions in their food purchases.

And consumers are especially confused about how different foods affect their weight. According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) 2014 Food & Health Survey, only 3 in 10 Americans – 29 percent – correctly believe that all sources of calories play an equal role in weight gain. This is especially prevalent in conversations about one class of ingredients in particular: sugar and other caloric sweeteners. Sugars have generated a lot of media attention, become the scapegoat for obesity, and as a result have posed great difficulty for most consumers when it comes to purchasing foods.

The 2014 IFIC Food & Health Survey results also show that 50% of Americans say they are trying to limit or avoid sugars when making food-purchasing decisions due to concerns about weight management and future health conditions. However, taste drives food and beverage choices, which can be seen as a catch-22 for many people. Personally I don’t believe this to be the case as food that is good for you can taste good too! But I digress. For now, let’s take a look at some stats on consumer purchases related to sugars and sweeteners:

  • One in three consumers says she’s avoiding sugars, but is still buying sweetened products at the same rate as other consumer segments
  • Despite a focus on high fructose corn syrup, fewer than 3% of shoppers say they specifically avoid this sweetener
  • Shoppers are most concerned about sugars and sweeteners in the following categories: carbonated beverages (60%), fruit juice (56%), cold cereal (54%), yogurt & yogurt drinks (52%), jams & jellies (45%)
  • Many companies that reformulated products to be HFCS-free have not seen an increase in sales and some have even seen a loss of market shares
  • Over the past 5 years, the percentage of people who expressed avoiding various sweeteners has stayed relatively stable

Based on these statistics, it’s no surprise that grocery chains are hiring more registered dietitian nutritionists. Oldways holds an annual Supermarket Dietitian Symposium, and there’s a Retail Dietitians Business Alliance with more than 400 retail RDs that most often work in supermarkets. So what are these Supermarket RDs doing for consumers? Here are just a few of the roles they play:

  • Helping people make better purchasing decisions
  • Teaching shoppers how to cook – supermarket RDs perform cooking demonstrations, develop recipes, and run cooking classes
  • Educating about reading nutrition labels and how to use the labels to compare competing products
  • Using scientific evidence to answer shopper questions and clarify misconceptions they may have heard

This last role is one of the most important for supermarket dietitians, especially as it pertains to the hot topic of the moment – sugar. As shoppers are looking for products lower in sugar, they may be eliminating certain foods that could provide them with nutrients they may otherwise be missing. For example, yogurt is one of the categories shoppers are most concerned about with regard to sugar content; however, most consumers don’t realize that much of the sugar on the Nutrition Facts Panel for sweetened yogurt products is coming from milk sugar, lactose, in the yogurt itself. A supermarket RD can explain this to shoppers and remind them of all the nutritional benefits of yogurt like calcium, potassium, vitamin D and protein.

Stocking the kitchen with a balanced variety of food and ingredients and eating certain foods in moderation can be a challenge with so many products lining supermarket shelves and conflicting news stories about food every other day. But with registered dietitian nutritionists playing a larger role in the supermarket environment, consumers will have an easier time making purchasing decisions that taste good and are good for them.

Sources:

The New Conversation About Sweeteners

HFCS-free: The trend stalled by consumer indifference?

Sweetener360 Consumer Research

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