In a perfect world, people could have their questions on healthy eating answered when and where they buy their food. So it comes as a pleasant surprise that supermarkets—both natural-foods and mainstream—are granting that wish by expanding their nutritional programs to educate customers. Now many shoppers can receive dietary counseling from their favorite grocery stores by Web, over the phone, or in person.
"People are more health-conscious and more confused than ever," says Ellen Speare, nutrition coordinator for Wild Oats Natural Marketplace, whose program has been leading the way for the last 9 years. The demonizing of carbs in popular culture is a repeat subject: "There's a lot of misinformation out there that I try to correct with scientific facts."
Wild Oats' program covers 102 markets in 24 states. In the six Denver stores where she works, Speare evaluates customers' current diets. (The service costs $25, a fact that Speare says weeds out those "who want to sit and talk about football.") She also answers about 20 calls a day, a number that has significantly increased, she notes.
Mainstream grocers are embracing the concept as well. Kroger, which operates more than 2,500 stores nationwide, maintains a toll-free number (866-632-6900) staffed by registered dietitians (R.D.'s); they answer questions about product labels and offer guidelines for callers interested in, for example, low-fat diets. Albertsons, which has more than 2,300 grocery stores in 31 states, including California, Texas, and Florida, has received positive customer feedback for its nutrition program—the company is now expanding the staff of R.D.'s at its hotline and Web site (888-746-7252, www.albertsons.com).
"For customers who have specific questions about dietary restrictions or product ingredients, our dietitians can assist them with understanding labels and planning meals," says Stacia Levenfeld, a spokeswoman for Albertsons.
Back at Wild Oats, Speare most commonly prescribes menu ideas that are convenient and easy to prepare. "A lot of eating well is just planning meals and buying food for the week," she says.
Nelda Mercer, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, applauds the convenience of hotlines and in-store counseling. "Getting good advice on demand is the Cadillac of customer service." But, she cautions, consider the source. "Make sure the person is credentialed as a registered dietitian and is giving science-based information."
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