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Steering shoppers toward better food

At a time when consumers are increasingly concerned about what they eat, the owner of Albertsons is launching a wide-ranging nutrition labeling campaign today designed to help shoppers quickly sort out what’s more healthful.

But don’t expect any labels on big sellers such as cookies, soft drinks, juice or ice cream. The stores are staying away from those nutritional hot potatoes for now.

“We don’t have an obligation to be the pizza police,” said Jeff Noddle, Supervalu Inc.'s chief executive, “but we do have an obligation to be a conduit of information for consumers who enter our stores and traverse the 30,000 to 40,000 products we sell.

Supervalu, the nation’s No. 3 grocer, which also owns Bristol Farms, Jewel-Osco and other chains, has developed what it calls “nutrition iQ,” a program that relies on color-coded, easy-to-spot shelf tags, or cards, that front grocery aisles to help shoppers make selections.

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Some foods will have shelf signs with a red tab that says “low saturated fat.” Others will have orange tags for foods that have higher levels of fiber, green tags for items with less salt and blue labels for foods with more calcium. The rating system launches with several thousand products and will be rolled out to include much of what’s sold inside a typical supermarket.

The program is getting support from food nutrition labeling advocates, even those who are working to launch rival nutrition scoring programs.

“We have to stop measuring value as the number of calories per dollar and look instead at how much nutrition you are getting for your buck,” said Dr. David Katz, a nutrition expert and public health professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, who developed a rating system used by several small regional grocery chains.

During a pilot program at an Albertsons in Fullerton last week, most shoppers didn’t notice the new labels. But those who did thought the shelf cards were helpful.

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“Normally I look at the nutrition facts on the label but this is easier,” said Laura Herman of Placentia as she pushed her shopping cart through the canned vegetable row.

Preliminary data from tests in 10 of Albertsons’ 239 Southern California stores suggested that the program helped steer shoppers to purchases of better-for-you foods in some categories, the company said.

For example, sales of canned vegetables with nutrition tags increased 11%, while sales of canned vegetables that didn’t have tags declined slightly. In addition, in the potato/mushroom/stuffing category, sales of items with nutrition tags outpaced sales of those items without tags by about 5%.

Supervalu’s approach “sounds helpful and good,” said Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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But it doesn’t go far enough, he argued. For example, it’s useful to know which ice cream, cookies or other junk food is the best for you, and Supervalu won’t be rating those types of foods for its nutrition tags.

Jacobson is an advocate of one national system for the supermarket industry that has been tested to make sure it best encourages consumers to choose the most healthful foods.

Other retailers have made stabs at providing more consumer nutrition information, but Supervalu will be the first national company to offer its own nutritional evaluation from multiple manufacturers and across most aisles of the supermarket.

Kroger Co., the owner of Ralphs in Southern California and the nation’s largest grocery company, has a “nutrition keys” label listing attributes such as high calcium or protein content for foods that it manufactures.

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Unlike Supervalu, Kroger does not offer any evaluation of products from Nestle, Kraft, Unilever and the other giant food companies that supply much of what’s on the typical supermarket shelf.

Supervalu is rolling out the nutrition tags at its Albertsons division first, and will expand to its other store brands this year, including Acme in Philadelphia; Farm Fresh in Norfolk, Va.; Shoppers Food & Pharmacy in Baltimore; Jewel-Osco in Chicago; and Shaw’s in Hartford, Conn.

The supermarket company developed the program with the help of dietitians from the Harvard University-affiliated Joslin Clinic.

The nutritionists evaluated about 4,000 food products from a variety of manufacturers sold by Albertsons and its sister chains, looking to see how the foods matched up with Food and Drug Administration Nutrient Content Guidelines. More products will be evaluated as the program expands.

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To receive a nutrition iQ tag, products are screened to make sure that they have limited levels of sodium, saturated fat and in some categories, sugar. Foods such as cookies, ice cream, salt, juice, soda and syrup were excluded from the tag program because they would never meet the criteria.

Using FDA guidelines as the criteria and outside nutritionists as the evaluators gives the program transparency and credibility, Noddle said.

Joslin dietitians refused to evaluate juices or sweet drinks, saying they had almost no nutritional value, despite the urging of an Albertsons dietitian who thought that 100% fruit juices deserved some rating.

It makes sense to have supermarkets provide the information with the help of independent advisors, Yale professor Katz said. “Letting the food manufacturers talk about nutrition is like having the fox guard the henhouse,” he said.

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For now, food producers aren’t complaining. “The Supervalu program is quick and easy to understand, helps inform consumers and will be a value to those specifically looking for key nutritional benefits of a food product. This program fits perfectly with the Oroweat brand,” said Dan Larson, an Oroweat spokesman.

And although Noddle says the grocery company’s program won’t be policing pizzas, at least in its initial phase it will highlight a handful of brands for their more healthful nutritional content. Healthy Choice Cafe Selections Gourmet Supreme Pizza, Empire Cheese and Mushroom Pizza and Lean Cuisine’s Roasted Vegetable Pizza all get tagged as a “good source of protein and low saturated fat.”

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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