Healthy Supermarket Shopping: Is An In-Store Nutritionist The Secret To Healthful Choices?

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How do you make healthy choices at the grocery store?

We've all heard the advice: avoid the center aisles where processed food abounds and stick to the produce, meat and dairy sections around the perimeter of your grocery store. And while supermarkets carry everything from healthful kale to harmful sugary sodas, some businesses are starting to help their customers make better selections with health ratings, stickers and other indicators that a food is good for you.

But will labels work? Previous research has found that including calorie counts at fast food restaurants doesn't sway consumer decision-making. And traditional nutrition labeling can be confusing. In-store labels, which are easy to read but don't include detailed information might be more visible, but it remains to be seen if they can help customers to make healthier choices.

Researchers from the University of Arizona College of Medicine and Arizona State University decided to find out if the new labels were as effective as in-store nutrition counseling. They recruited 153 local shoppers and brought them to a grocery store that used on-shelf labeling based on recommendations from the American Heart Association. The labels read either "healthier option," "heart healthy," "low sodium," "calcium rich," or "immune booster." Half of the group shopped the store using the labels without any additional nutritional help, while the other half received a 10-minute counseling session with a nutrition educator that focused on understanding two of the labels: "heart healthy" and "immune booster."

"Heart healthy" labeled foods include those that are low in fat, saturated fat and trans fats and "immune booster" foods include all fruits and veggies, though particularly those with dark-green, orange, yellow and red colors.

Following the point of sale, the researchers analyzed each study participant's grocery cart for fat content and both the amount and color of the produce. They found that the shoppers who had access to in-store counseling had carts with a greater number of fruits and veggies, particularly fruit, green and yellow vegetables.

"Food purchasing patterns are predictive of actual dietary intake, and even the modest effects from our study could translate into meaningful health benefits if sustained long term," said lead author Dr. Brandy-Joe Milliron, now a postdoctoral Fellow at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, in a statement.

While it might not be possible to have a nutritionist on hand at every trip to the market, this study shows that additional information and knowledgeable staff could help shoppers to make more healthful decisions -- and that can have a lasting impact on their diets.

The study was published in the latest issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior

What's your secret to shopping healthfully? Tell us in the comments or tweet us @HealthyLiving with the hashtag #healthygrocerytip. Here are a few of your answers:

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