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Health trends shape grocery stocks

News editor

Ask 10 people what “health foods” are and you’re likely to get 10 different answers, as consumers are flooded with information about nutrition, often conflicting, everywhere they turn.

Marion County grocers say the balance of foods they stock has shifted in recent years toward healthier items, a combined effect of changing eating patterns and industry modifications.

Greg Carlson of Carlsons’ Grocery in Marion said he’s seen recent growth in the kind and number of items that he stocks that are gluten-free. Gluten is protein found in wheat and related grains, and it’s been linked to medical problems for people with celiac disease. Beyond that, evidence for health benefits for a gluten-free diet are mixed, but several popular diets are based on eliminating gluten.

“A lot of people anymore are gluten-free, and we’re huge on gluten-free right now,” Carlson said. “Throughout my store I’ve got signs on sausage, bread mixes, cereals, baking products, and pasta.”

Demand for gluten-free products also is strong at Dale’s Supermarket in Hillsboro.

“We’re looking at making an end cap section for gluten-free products and rotating some things out to give people choices,” Dale Franz said. “We get special requests for items all the time.”

Fresh fruits and vegetable labeled “organic” have taken over more display space, as the perceived benefits of produce grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers have caught on with some consumers.

“Years ago, if we had organic fruits and vegetables they’d basically sit there and we’d throw just about everything away,” Franz said. “Now we carry some organic vegetables, salads and that, all the time. If we have organic apples, they sell pretty good.”

Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market manager Brian Miller said organic vegetables hadn’t caught on in the Midwest to the degree they have elsewhere in the country. He said he was surprised, however, at the demand for vegetarian items.

“The vegetarianism category is doing much better than I originally expected,” he said. “In the past few days we just started carrying tofu, as well as expanding our selection of vegetarian frozen products.”

Vickie Turner of Peabody Market said she’s seen in her store a trend reported by others of increased sales of bottled drinking water.

“Just a few years ago you wouldn’t dream of buying a bottle of water,” Turner said. “You’d get a soft drink of some kind. Now, a lot of people go for the water. We sell a lot of 24 packs.”

Miller agreed: “Cases of bottled water are a huge traffic driver, They’re an item people can usually tell you the price of.”

Miller said that was a change from the days when prevailing grocery wisdom was that prices for bread, milk, and bananas were the primary attractors for shoppers.

Turner said another change has been the public’s responsiveness to whatever food fad is sweeping the country.

“For a while, it was green tea,” she said. “A study comes out saying this item is good, so all the manufacturers put it in their items. It makes the general public think it’s healthier because it has that ingredient.”

Turner noted one product that has resisted that trend.

“I guess we haven’t seen green tea Oreos yet,” she said.

Aside from fads, however, Franz said manufacturers are generally more health-conscious than a decade ago, and have cut back on ingredients that have been implicated in poor diets.

“Frozen foods years ago used to be heavy on sodium content,” Franz said. “Nesquik (powdered chocolate drink mix) is reducing the amount of sugar by one third.”

With all the choices out there, Turner said Peabody Market has stayed away from ordering specialty health foods outside of individual requests.

“The things I’ve guessed at haven’t been very good,” she said.

Carlson agreed that responding to individual requests works well, because shelf-space and demand are limited.

“The bigger towns, there’s a lot more call for that,” he said.

Last modified May 20, 2015

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