Never has the phrase "You are what you eat" been truer about Americans than today.
About 17 million people in the United States—or 6.2 percent of the population—have diabetes, according to the most recent statistics from the American Diabetes Association. Another 102.3 million adults are wrestling with high cholesterol, and three in five adults between the ages of 20 and 74 are overweight, with one in four considered obese, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was released last September.
Close to 65 percent of Americans are struggling with Syndrome X, a combination of extra weight carried around the middle, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and elevated triglycerides, that when paired with insulin resistance is a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
The primary culprit of all these health problems: Americans' unhealthy eating habits.
And what may seem like an obvious solution—adopting a nutritionally balanced diet—is no easy task in a society where mass-market retailers, motivated by profit and emboldened by the mega-marketing dollars of the packaged foods producers, continue to sell foods and snacks that nutritionists say are unhealthy.
"A lot of the products [conventional grocers] sell are those that set the stage for prediabetes," says Jack Challem, editor of The Nutrition Reporter, a newsletter that reports on the dietary and nutritional issues facing today's consumers. He also co-wrote Syndrome X: The Complete Nutritional Program to Prevent and Reverse Insulin Resistance (John Wiley & Sons, 2000), a book that outlines the disorder and maps out a corrective diet.
"We're talking about foods loaded with refined sugars, refined carbohydrates," he says. "A 2-liter bottle of soft drink has about a half cup of sugar, and it could be high-fructose corn sugar. It's these high-glycemic foods that set the stage. But it's where the stores are making major sales—soda companies are persuasive in their marketing and generous in the fees they pay to retailers to promote their products.
"So how do you not promote products that account for most of your sales?" Challem asks rhetorically.
While mass-market retailers struggle to figure that out, Challem says, naturals retailers have an opportunity to win over consumers by talking up their stocks of healthy, low-glycemic index products and offering increasingly concerned consumers information about the food, supplements and other natural products that will help put their diets back on a healthy track.
"The biggest problem is that people are addicted to really bad, unhealthy, junky food. They are so addicted, they can't imagine not eating these foods," Challem says.
To convince them otherwise, grocers such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's offer in-store sampling almost daily. By letting consumers experience for themselves that organic, natural or other healthy products taste good, or even better than the conventional products and produce they're used to buying at the mass-market stores, naturals and organics retailers set themselves up as an advocate for good nutrition, says Challem.
That's not something most mass-market retailers have been able to emphasize, considering the types of products that pull in the most sales.
Another way to reach out to consumers: offering their choice of high-quality, healthy products and educating consumers about the benefits of those products. Challem points to leading retailers such as Wild Oats Markets. "They sell grass-fed beef. The whole fat profile of grass-fed beef is very different from corn-fed beef," Challem says. "Their whole message is to offer people more choices, healthy choices."
Another way to transition consumers toward natural and organic foods: Offer consumers healthy recipes that are easy to make.
Yet, naturals and organics retailers don't have to go it alone. Producers of natural and organic products are stepping up to help retailers as well by labeling their products with seals intended to draw the attention of consumers who have unique dietary concerns.
For example, by the end of the year, the Great Falls, Mont.-based Kamut Association of North America hopes to put a "low-glycemic" seal on eight Kamut products sold in the United States and Canada. Kamut is a grain in the wheat family that the International Food Allergy Association says can be tolerated by 70 percent of people who are sensitive or allergic to other forms of wheat. A low glycemic rating means that the sugar in the food dissolves slowly into the bloodstream so that there is no spike in blood sugar. And the new seal is intended to appeal to consumers—diabetics and athletes, for example—who want to maintain a steady level of sugar in the blood, says KANA spokeswoman Debby Quinn Blyth. "People who are on the cutting edge of what they're looking for in nutrition are concerned about things like glycemic ratings."
Because glycemic testing can be costly, many food manufacturers don't put the rating on their labels, says the Washington, D.C.-based Glycemic Research Institute. (The other reason: Many prepared foods are very high glycemic, says the institute, and if the label said so it could affect food sales).
But for KANA, the seals are a marketing opportunity too good to pass up. The first eight products—just a small sampling of the more than 150 Kamut products produced by 80 companies in the United States and Canada—are being tested thanks in part to a grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture. Twenty or 30 Montana farmers grow most of the Kamut produced in the United States.
"For us, it's about promoting Kamut as a healthful choice," adds Blyth. "We can say it's a high-energy food that's higher in protein, minerals and vitamins than modern wheat. Getting products tested and putting a seal on them showing their low glycemic rating just helps us attract even more people who care about what they eat."
Connie Guglielmo is a writer, editor and novelist in Los Altos, Calif. She may be reached at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 2/p. 26, 30
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 2/p. 30