By Jenn LaVardera, MS RD
With health at the forefront of food purchasing decisions, it pays to have a nutrition expert in the aisles. Currently, approximately 1,000 supermarket dietitians are employed across the United States working everywhere from large chain stores to independent grocers.
Though positions vary, the general role of the supermarket dietician is to lead nutrition education programs and to help shoppers make informed food decisions, while they shop. Common activities include store tours, cooking classes, counseling sessions and education through newsletters and brochures.
It is no surprise dietitians promote fresh produce—both conventional and organic—because of the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. “We love to highlight new ways to prepare produce and integrate more into daily meal plans,” said Big Y dietitian Andrea Luttrell, RDN, LDN.
While no produce is discriminated through the eyes of a dietitian, there are opportunities to draw attention to organic. “When shoppers are looking for non-GMO products, organic fruits and vegetables are a top recommendation,” said Luttrell. Other common shopper concerns include how to wash produce, types of pesticides used in organic production, nutritional differences between organic and conventional, and if organic is worth the additional cost.
“We get questions regarding what foods are most important to purchase organic and if organic food is ‘better.’ This can be tricky because most dietitians are taught to look at foods based on nutrient content and not necessarily other aspects of the food system,” explains Kayla Petersen, RD, nutritionist at New Seasons Market in Portland, OR. “Growing and eating food is about more than whether organic or conventional broccoli has more vitamin C.”
Sustainability does enter the produce department discussion. “I speak to the environmental benefits of organic produce during customer tours and counseling sessions when a customer is interested,” said Ashley Quadros, MS, RD, CD of Harmons Grocery, South Jordan, Utah.
Emphasis on organic can vary depending on the store, region and customer attitudes. “Customers I interact with understand that soil health is important, but I don’t know if that’s the norm,” continues Petersen of New Seasons Market. “I think conversations around organic produce in our stores look much different than they might in other parts of the country.”
Education is paramount in the role of the retail dietitian, who often rely on brand partnerships for materials, resources and tools to elevate their programs. Infographics, charts, simple recipes, tips for selection and preparation, information on product benefits and coupons resonate well with shoppers. “Anything that can make fruits and vegetables more accessible to the general public is a win in our book,” say Luttrell.
A common way for companies to deliver materials to dietitians is to provide an educational toolkit—directed either to shoppers or dietitians themselves. “It might be helpful to educate dietitians on organic agriculture so that we feel more informed and better able to share the information with customers,” Petersen said. “I remember being taught that vegetables and fruits grown organically did not vary significantly in nutrition from those grown conventionally. I think we as dietitians do ourselves a disservice if we don’t investigate organic mo