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    Tags — You’re in?

    The decision of whether to introduce a nutrition guidance program at the shelf should depend on cost and potential impact.

    By Barbara Ruhs

    Early in my career as a supermarket dietitian, I implemented a nutrition shelf tag program without the assistance of a nutrition shelf tag company or product nutrition database.

    Since I didn?t know then that these companies and resources existed, I reviewed USDA?s food-labeling regulations and visited stores to create tag listings for products that qualified for four basic nutrition tag types, based on their Nutrition Facts labels. Customized tag artwork was created in consultation with our marketing and merchandising teams, and scan clerks executed nearly 1,000 tags in the retailer?s 50 stores across the state.

    Costs and Benefits

    My primary goal was to help improve shoppers? health by providing nutrition guidance at the point of purchase. A year later, various nutrition shelf tag companies, including NuVal, Guiding Stars and Vestcom, pitched their programs to my company, offering a more comprehensive plan to identify and tag qualifying products. At the time, the cost of an annual license for one of these programs varied from $30,000 to $100,000, based on the number of stores displaying tags.

    The ROI of nutrition shelf tags was one of my first considerations in deciding to implement a tag program. Aside from Guiding Stars, there?s little published research on the ROI of nutrition shelf tags; however, the American Heart Association has seen a 3 percent to 5 percent sales lift associated with its Heart Check icon, displayed on qualifying items at the point of purchase.

    With more than 40,000 products lining the shelves of the average supermarket, the impact of a shelf tag program is enhanced by executing more tags. Ideally, a threshold of greater than 10 percent of all products should have some sort of nutrition tag to be relevant. Make sure that tags appear throughout all departments, especially in key categories, to gain customer awareness and value. To accomplish this, several types of tags must be part of the overall strategy. For example, in the frozen entrée section, many products may not qualify as ?heart-healthy? or ?low-sodium,? but a calorie-threshold tag (500 or fewer) may work better.

    Although Guiding Stars research suggests that the system shifts consumer choice toward healthier items, I was concerned that the program wasn?t truly educating customers on how to select better choices, but rather training shoppers to look for stars.

    Making Qualified Health Claims

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers shelf tags extensions of food labels, so tags are limited to the agency?s approved labeling claims and must meet its defined nutrition qualifications. Forget about creating tags for superfoods, probiotics, or other cutting-edge buzzwords or nutrition trends, as these types of claims aren?t among those sanctioned by FDA for product packaging without liability risks.

    To remain compliant, nutritional shelf tag companies must continuously update their nutrition facts databases with product formulation changes and new product additions. The bottom line: Tags need to be refreshed on a regular basis, and without regulatory expertise, the attention of a corporate dietitian, and a streamlined process, a shelf tag program isn?t worth the investment.

    Most retailers fall short in engaging customers through nutrition tag programs, and most haven?t maximized the vast nutrition information at their fingertips. Those that do so will bring about healthier, more engaged and loyal customers.

    Without regulatory expertise, the attention of a corporate dietitian, and a streamlined process, a nutrition shelf tag program isn?t worth the investment.

    By Barbara Ruhs
    • About Barbara Ruhs Barbara Ruhs is a registered dietitian and the founder of Phoenix-based Neighborhood Nutrition LLC (www.neighborhoodnutrition.com). Follow her on Twitter at @BarbRuhsRD.

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