Future Forces: Who will you trust?

The consumers’ quest for naturalness is really a continuing search for healthy living.

By Patrick Kiernan

Something happens to your view of life when you start becoming the oldest person in the room. While I have not reached “geezer” status, health and wellness have become more of a daily thought rather than the reminder from an annual physical. Kaiser Permanente sends me frequent reminders on healthy aging and they even hold farmers’ markets on some of their parking lots.

Daily emails and news stories abound with both the good and bad in lifestyles, food and drink. Campbell Soup Co. bows to consumer pressure over the use of bisphenol in all its can linings. Brazil orange juice exporters admit fungicide in citrus concentrates. A 20-year study suggests OTC supplements may do more harm than good. General Mills fights a fruit snacks lawsuit by claiming, “we never said they were healthful and nutritious.”

The death of my sister earlier this year forced me to see the connection between food and health. My sister struggled with weight and poor eating habits all of her life. Sadly, her passing means she lost the chance to live her retirement dreams after 40 years of work. Society should also mourn her loss as the bill for her last 100 days of life is approaching $1 million, which is a Medicare cost for all of us under social security benefits.

Food has many uses. Food is a weapon in many war-torn countries. Food is fuel with decades of tax credits for corn ethanol. Food is fun, providing families’ conversation time at dinner, nutrition and somewhere way down the list, food is wellness. All this leads me to my question of who will you (society, your customers) trust to tell the health and wellness story of the grocery industry?

I believe our past story of “no bad foods, just bad diets” does not bring enough truth to an aging obese society within which childhood obesity is also epidemic. Today, fully one third of our young adults are ineligible for military service due to being overweight. In response to epidemic levels of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, major medical groups are now recommending that every child between ages 9 and 11 be tested for high cholesterol. While PepsiCo spends millions each year to stop sin taxes on its products, Pepsi must also wrestle with its unions to charge $50 a month to employees if they smoke or have obesity-related medical problems.

Don’t get me wrong, “facts up front” nutrition information and nutrition scoring shelf tags can help, but they may be too little too late. We can probably all cite retailer and manufacturer brands that are launching campaigns to increase nutrition awareness and healthy living. Examples such as Nestlé’s “Healthy Steps for Healthy Lives” initiative provide healthier ingredients and portion control for consumers. Health care is now Clorox’s No. 1 priority for merger and acquisition expansion with personal care brands to supplement its Burt’s Bees skin care line.

Likewise, retailers such as Lubbock, Texas-based United Supermarkets, continue to grow their health and wellness programs for both customers and team members. Wegmans Food Markets is overhauling store brands to reduce sodium and sugar and also increase better ingredients such as whole grains, and Hy-Vee pioneered in-store nutrition experts.

But, new “better-for-you” products and better store information will not in and of themselves counteract bad habits or lifestyle choices. Our industry needs to grow our knowledge and connections with chefs, dietitians and other health care professionals.

Many of you may be able to see this story continue to unfold at the FMI2012 Food Retail Show, where the exhibit floor will showcase healthier alternatives and kid-friendly choices along with workshop educational tracks focused on health and wellness. You may even see for the first time how supermarket chefs are dealing with healthy alternatives. And next year, FMI and GMDC will combine their efforts in a joint conference.

But, if the grocery industry hopes to avoid increased costs and taxes for an aging, obese society, it must do more to engage local governments, nonprofit agencies and schools to nurture healthy eating and active living.

As families are required by governmental financial constraints to control more of their health and wellness costs, the grocery industry must move beyond the simplistic pharmacy OTC model.

Wellness information surrounds where we work, learn and play. Shoppers are becoming channel agnostic on their path to wellness. This search for trust goes well beyond bricks and clicks to a network of family, friends, doctors, dietitians, and yes, grocery stores.

Grocery stores can become the families’ total health and wellness destination if we are not afraid to provide expert nutrition education around individual health needs, and living well menu suggestions throughout the seasons. Future forces now require the grocery stores to again be reinvented by engaging the community to inform and contribute to the well-being of every town neighborhood and family by becoming the trusted source of healthy living.

Patrick Kiernan, managing partner of Day/Kiernan & Associates, is affiliated with The Center for Food Marketing at St. Joseph’s Uni­versity, Philadelphia; the Institute for the Future, Palo Alto, Calif.; and Encore Associates, San Ramon, Calif. He can be reached at KiernanPat@aol.com.

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