Canada's big three supermarket chains market healthy eating

With a little help from Jamie Oliver and others, Sobeys, Metro and Loblaw encourage consumers to eat better

The next time you order takeout, don’t be surprised if celebrity chef Jamie Oliver breaks into your kitchen and admonishes you to put down the phone and “cook in; it’s faster and it costs less.”

At least that’s the premise of a TV ad by Sobeys, part of the grocer’s healthy-eating program that includes the tag line “Better food for all,” launched this fall.

READ: Sobeys unveils its new brand positioning with Jamie Oliver

The program includes nutritious recipes, products free from artificial flavours and preservatives, certified humane meats as well as Oliver-branded foods.

The scheme comes on the heels of Loblaw’s Guiding Stars program, which provides at-a-glance nutritional ratings. It launched in Ontario in 2012, and in Quebec last summer.

Then in October, Metro launched “My healthy plate with Metro,” a program that gives smiley faces to foods it deems nutritional. As a result, each of Canada’s Big Three grocers now has public healthy eating programs.

All say their goals are to simplify healthy-eating choices. Sobeys’ research found 76% of consumers want to feed their families healthier food, but find it difficult and too time-consuming.

For its part, Loblaw has Canadian rights to Guiding Stars, developed for the American grocery chain Hannaford Bros., in 2006.

Metro’s program was put together in-house with expertise from outside scientific advisors and nutritionists. Both programs give thumbs up to foods with more vitamins, minerals, fibre and whole grains; and thumbs down to foods with saturated or trans fats, added sugars or sodium.

“One thing driving is Whole Foods,” says Harold Simpkins, a senior lecturer in marketing at Concordia University in Montreal. The natural-foods retailer has eight stores in Canada but plans to open 40 more. “Maybe you can call this a pre-emptive defensive measure.”

READ: Metro launches healthy eating initiative

Simpkins says healthy-eating programs also differentiate grocers from the likes of Target, Walmart and Costco. As he puts it: “If we’re the store that cares about your nutrition and helps you feed yourself and your family more healthfully, that could counter some of the appeal of the Walmarts and the Targets, which is just price, price, price.”

Marc Giroux, vice-president of marketing at Metro, says the goal of his chain’s program is to encourage brand loyalty from customers who also frequent competitors’ stores. Although 52% of consumers want to improve their eating, many are under “food stress” and want choices simplified, he says.

“Grocery stores are realizing that they can play an important role in helping consumers choose nutritious choices for themselves and their families,” says Sue Mah, a registered dietitian in Toronto and president of Nutrition Solutions.

“Since consumers are pressed for time, these types of programs can help identify choices easily and quickly,” Mah says.

The Guiding Stars rating system appears to be shifting buying habits and is steering shoppers away from items with no stars toward healthier foods that merit stars, according to an independent study published in October in the journal Food Policy.

Sales of no-star cereals dropped 2.6% at Hannaford stores compared with a control group comprised of similar stores. Cereals with stars saw sales gains of up to 1%.

READ: Making supermarkets the hub of health care

Mah says ratings programs can help consumers, but “the criteria for each of these programs is different and can be complicated for the average consumer to understand.” She wants Health Canada to develop criteria that all grocers and food manufacturers can use.

In the meantime, Mah says, consumers should read nutrition facts tables and ingredient lists.

Until Jamie Oliver breaks into their kitchen, of course.

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