The Challenge is Choice – Supermarket Aisles Teach Important Nutrition Lessons

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The biggest challenge any shopper faces in the store today is choice. The Food Marketing Institute reports that the average grocery store is over 40,000 square feet and the average number of skus that a supermarket carries is 37,900. Here are tips for dietitians and family and consumer science agents to use for supermarket tours.

The most important section of the grocery store is the produce aisle. Here, participants of our supermarket tours can try samples of fruits and vegetables and learn new ways to prepare common items. Using every sense, they taste, test, learn, feel and compare different items. Produce managers in various stores provide unusual samples such as star fruit and kiwi to generate interest.

The cereal aisle is an excellent place to compare labels and show consumers what they should be getting, e.g. fiber and vitamins, instead of what they should be avoiding. The American Heart Association’s Food Certification Program provides a heart with a check through it on the package to ensure consumers that the product meets the AHA food criteria. Additionally, Julie Ornelas, RDN, LD KDHE, Bureau of Family Health Nutrition and WIC Services, has a great tip about spotting healthful cereals quickly. WIC, the Women, Infants, and Children program to help at-risk moms feed their kids, has rigorous guidelines for cereal with regards to how much sugar is allowed to be present, how much iron is included and the percent of whole grains. Grocers often post WIC-Approved labels on these cereals, making them easy to spot for all consumers.

Going down the cookie aisle is where we demonstrate that low-carb or fat free doesn’t equate with calorie free. It is interesting to see how the same brand of cookie has roughly the same amount of calories whether or not it is low-carb, fat free or reduced-fat. Allowable information on packages such as cholesterol free or no saturated fat doesn’t always tell the whole story so we seek out deeper truths on the label, e.g. total fat, total sugars or calories.

A good example of portion control can be found in two places - the snack aisle and the frozen dessert section. Popcorn is one of the best visualizers of serving sizes. A serving of popcorn is 3 to 4 cups while a bag of popcorn is 12 to 15 cups. Although a few cups of popcorn may have little fat, a whole bag adds up. Frozen yogurt sounds low in calories when figures are given for a half cup, but people often eat more.
The ethnic food aisle and bean aisle are excellent places to recommend plant-based meals. We like to find new carbohydrate foods for them to try or discuss. Consumer research shows Americans eat only 3 out of 6 servings from the grain group and only one whole grain.

The dairy cases with margarine, butter, and cheese often create the most heated debate. For margarine, we like to compare many different kinds of one brand: original stick, reduced calorie stick, unsalted spread, soft spread, soft, lowfat and fat free which range per tablespoon from 100 down to 15 calories. Since vegetable oil sprays are often located in a different aisle, we usually carry a can to describe their use and compare labels. Fat free sliced cheese can save as much as 40 calories per slice. Regular cream cheese has three times the calories as fat free plus it has 10 grams total fat and 7 grams saturated fat.

The meat and deli aisles raise questions. First we point out how to select skinless ground turkey breast over ground turkey. Lowfat deli meats may have a gram or two more fat than fat free deli meats but they have less sodium. Saving 100 mg. of sodium per day can save 36,500 mg. per year!

The yogurt aisle is our sweet finale. Yogurt provides important nutrients such as protein and calcium and makes a great dessert; however a 6 ounce serving of some flavored dessert yogurts can have as many as 180 calories. Reading the label can help you find a treat that’s also low in calories.

Jacqueline B. Marcus, MS, RD, LD, FADA


Food Marketing Institute, Supermarket Stats Report, Web, Accessed September 2015.

IMG 5981 The Challenge is Choice - Supermarket Aisles Teach Important Nutrition Lessons(healthy shopping cart in live checkout)

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