It's a phenomenon that's becoming increasingly mainstream—customers wandering around your store, clutching a newspaper article or a Web site printout, peering fretfully at labels. Maybe their doctors sent them with a vague warning that they should cut down on their sugar consumption. Maybe they read somewhere that gluten is bad. Whatever their motivations, these "have-not" customers are increasing. And whether they're giving up wheat, dairy, sugar, caffeine or any other ingredient associated with intolerances, allergies or just general poor health, have-nots are a great marketing opportunity for your store.
"There's a learning curve anytime you change your diet, and health food stores can give people the nuts and bolts to make it easier," says Karen Salbo, nutritionist coordinator for Vitamin Cottage, a 25-store chain in Colorado and New Mexico. "The customers are so appreciative because it takes the stress out of planning their diet."Vitamin Cottage employs a staff nutritionist who meets with customers to answer their questions, help them shop, aid in meal planning and in general "help ease them into finding what products work for them," Salbo says. While that may not be feasible for some stores, there's plenty of information available to help your staff and customers learn more about diet restrictions. Here's a primer on four of the most common substances customers are looking to eliminate or reduce in their diets, and how to replace the nutrients found in those substances.
With celiac disease and gluten intolerance on the rise, wheat and other sources of gluten have become a diet don't for many people. But one of the keys to successfully helping your customers go wheat-free is understanding why they want to do it.
Say your customer has gastrointestinal problems and suspects gluten might be the culprit. "We see physicians who say, 'Why not just try the gluten-free diet and see what happens?'" says Shelley Case, R.D., of Case Nutrition Consulting in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. But that approach can result in a misdiagnosis in people who really do have celiac disease, she says. The villi in the intestine—microscopic? finger-like projections that absorb nutrients—can start to heal after gluten is removed from the diet, making celiac disease test results negative. "Get the test done before you remove wheat," Case advises. Otherwise, you might be one of the 20 percent to 25 percent of people she says are misdiagnosed.
Nutritionists say those with gluten intolerance might be able to simply cut down on wheat. Customers who have celiac disease, however, need to remove all gluten from their diet, Case says. "But that's more than just taking out the bread and the pasta and the cookies and the cake," Case says. Some products are made with wheat flour or wheat starch as a carrier agent or binder. Case recommends checking the ingredient labels on seasonings, soy sauce, candy (particularly licorice), prepared cake frosting and frozen burgers or chicken that use bread crumbs as binders. Even medicines can contain gluten-based fillers.
But customers who give up wheat have problems beyond identifying hidden ingredients. They need to replace the fiber and B vitamins they'd normally get from wheat. Adding more beans, nuts, leafy greens, lean meat, fish, poultry or eggs to their diet can take care of the B vitamins, and substituting other flours for wheat flour can add fiber. But not all flours are equally nutritious, Case cautions, nor are all gluten-free products made from nutritious ingredients. "Some of them use potato starch or corn starch," which have little or no dietary fiber, she says.
In her book Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide (Case Nutrition Consulting, 2006), Case has charts listing the nutrient composition of gluten-free grains, flours, starches, gums, legumes and seeds. One cup of whole-wheat flour has 14.6 grams of dietary fiber. Case says nongluten grains, flours or starches that meet or exceed that amount per cup include:
- Crude corn bran, 60 grams of fiber
- Mesquite flour, 46.1 grams
- Flaxseed, 45.9 grams
- Rice bran, 39 grams
- Montina (made from a native grass), 36 grams
- Buckwheat bran, 22.7 grams
- Chickpea flour, 20.9 grams
- Amaranth seed, 18.1 grams
- Soy flour (defatted), 17.5 grams
- Yellow whole-grain corn flour, 15.7 grams
- Almond flour, 14.7 grams
Case says almonds (15.1 grams per cup) and sesame seeds (17.4 grams) are good sources of fiber, along with black beans (15 grams), romano beans (17.7 grams), lentils (15.6 grams), navy beans (19.1 grams), pinto beans (14.7 grams) and split peas (16.3 grams).
Lactose and casein are the feel-bad culprits in dairy products. According to The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II (Benbella Books, 2005), casein consumption has been linked to cancer and inflammation-related diseases. Lactose intolerance can cause gastric upset. The New York Times has recognized the study (China-Oxford-Cornell Diet and Health Project) as the "Grand Prix of epidemiology" and the "most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease."
Lactose and casein can be found in many products besides traditional dairy items. Dee Sandquist, R.D., a spokes?woman for the American Dietetic Association, suggests looking for dairy-related terms such as whey, curds, rennet, acidophilus caseinate, calcium caseinate, hydrolyzed milk protein, lactoglobulin and lactate on ingredient labels. They commonly show up in baked goods, chocolate, crackers and ghee, she says.
Replacing the calcium and vitamin D found in dairy products can be as simple as steering customers to enriched rice, nut or soymilks. Salbo says almond and hazelnut milks are very popular with Vitamin Cottage customers, particularly because they have less sugar than rice milk. Coconut milk is also a favorite. "If you mix it with rice or soymilk, it makes it more creamy for baking or as a coffee-creamer substitute," she says.
Cheese is more problematic, Salbo admits. "It's not easy for people to switch from dairy cheese to nondairy cheese if they love cheese" because of the taste and texture of nondairy cheese. She says some brands of rice cheese come in packaged singles that mimic the taste of American cheese. They may have casein, however.
Most people know sugar can contribute to obesity and diabetes, but they're less sure of how to identify it. "Basically, any word that ends in 'ose' is a form of sugar—lactose, fructose, sucrose and so on," Sandquist says.
Cutting out sugar can be a less-strenuous process than eliminating gluten or milk from a diet. "If people have a wheat or dairy allergy, we make them change cold turkey," Sandquist says. But eliminating or reducing sugar can be more gradual. "If they drink six cans of soda a day, we might cut it to three," she says. "We try to only make one big diet change at a time."
Natural foods customers are big consumers of sugar substitutes. Salbo says stevia, which comes from an herb, and xylitol, a naturally occurring sugar alcohol, are the most popular with Vitamin Cottage shoppers. She says customers are gravitating toward stevia mixed with mannitol—another sugar alcohol—or vegetable glycerin, which take away stevia's distinctive aftertaste.
Vitamin Cottage educates its employees on how customers can reformulate baked goods recipes to either eliminate refined sugar altogether or swap some of it with stevia, xylitol or natural sugars such as date sugar, honey or maple syrup.
Caffeine may be the easiest substance for your customers to give up nutritionally, but one of the hardest physically and psychologically. Sandquist says if someone drinks five cups of coffee a day, "We'll cut it down to three a day for a week and take it down from there." If her clients want to go cold turkey, after a day or two, headaches and other symptoms associated with caffeine withdrawal are usually gone, she says.
Although there are several natural, caffeine-free coffee substitutes on the market, people new to health food may find them too exotic, Salbo says. "They're more likely to go for green tea or yerba mate," even though they contain some caffeine, "because those products are in the media more and there are more demos for them."
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 2/p. 26, 30