With roughly 20,000 new food products flooding the market each year in packages often riddled with confusing health claims and verification stamps, choosing groceries has become a dizzying experience. If you have a special dietary problem, such as a food allergy, the maze becomes even more complex. Major grocery chains, aware of the problem and eager to jump on the wellness bandwagon, are hiring a new kind of expert to help shoppers navigate their store — a supermarket dietitian.

When it was founded in 2001 the Supermarket-Retail Dietitians practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics had 14 members. Today, it has 720, a testament to the grocery industry’s growing emphasis on providing food and nutrition guidance as a service for shoppers.

Fifty-five percent of consumers see their primary food store as an ally in their wellness efforts, ranking right up there with health clubs (57 percent), according to the 2018 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report published by the Food Marketing Institute. Beyond needing help deciphering labels and choosing ingredients, shoppers surveyed said they want real-life meal solutions, inspiration and guidance in the form of recipes, grab-and-go options and nutritional recommendations. Retail dietitians who provide those things benefit businesses as well as customers. Another FMI report published in 2017 noted that 81 percent of retailers viewed supermarket health and wellness programs as a significant business growth opportunity for the industry, and 69 percent consider such programs a responsibility to their communities and customers.

As Kim Kirchherr, a dietitian and supermarket consultant working with Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA) put it, “This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s where people are making their food decisions.”

So how can you best take advantage of these complimentary health and wellness services? That depends on where you shop. Some brands have in-store dietitians conducting tours, leading cooking demonstrations and classes, providing tasting opportunities, and doing health screenings. Others focus their outreach online and in print with robust dietitian-run Web pages, social media platforms and apps, as well as newsletters, magazines and tip sheets where you can find recipes, healthy meal inspirations and ingredient guidance. Many have a multipronged approach. Hy-Vee, for example, a chain of more than 240 supermarkets located throughout the Midwest, coordinates in-store and Web-based outreach though its Dietitian Pick of the Month program, where a chosen healthy ingredient is highlighted in store tours, cooking classes, online videos and in social media. The first two products featured when the chain started this program in 2009 were chia seeds and Greek yogurt, and they remain big sellers for the chain today.

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