“Health and wellness” has never been more important for Americans and for the suppliers of the foods they eat to help them meet their personal better-for-you goals.

But health and wellness have evolved so much in recent years, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what people mean when they use the terms. Getting a better handle on it, though, is critical to perimeter departments that want to capitalize on the obvious advantages their fresh and healthy foods provide. 

In the food world of 20 or so years ago, there wasn’t nearly as much crossover between healthy eaters and those who fell into different categories, said Krystal Register, director of health and wellbeing for Arlington, Va.-based FMI – The Food Industry Association.

For instance, people who called themselves healthy eaters didn’t tend to overlap with those who identified as foodies. 

But what Register calls a “convergence” began to emerge before the pandemic and only accelerated during it. Today’s consumers increasingly don’t just want to be just foodies and health-conscious, they also want convenience and a host of other benefits when they make their food-buying choices.

When it comes to the fresh perimeter, one way retailers are trying to meet that new consumer where she is, Register said, is with easy meal solutions that combine convenience, health and flavor.

Crucial to those efforts for many retailers is the input of in-house dietitians.

“There’s an uptick in the number of dietitians in stores,” Register said. “They have the education and the knowledge to take the science of nutrition, which isn’t always easy to talk about, and put it into a customized solution.”

Making that solution convenient is crucial. According to recent Industry Speaks data from FMI, 80% of retailers plan to add more grab-and-go options in the near future.

The rise of “natural”

One big difference between the perimeter departments of the past and the perimeter departments of the present is the presence of “natural” products, said Raj Shroff, founder and principal of Columbus, Ohio-based PINE Strategy & Design.

“It used to be you had to a market that specialized in natural, now every grocery store has a huge organic section,” he said. “Natural continues to go mainstream.”

“Mainstream” also increasingly means “decentralized,” said John Youger, a PINE partner. Kroger and other retail chains used to have natural sections in their store. Now natural products are spread throughout the perimeter and the rest of the store.

Despite all of the gains, selling consumers on health and wellness can be easier said than done. As Youger points out, it’s convenience, not health and wellness, that seems to be playing the biggest role in the grocery perimeter of today. Sometimes that can overlap with healthy, but not always.

One simple thing retailers could do in the perimeter to promote the health benefits of their products is more instore signs, Shroff said. Simple messages like “This product is high in fiber,” or “This product has been tied to heart health.”

“It’s not trying to cram it down their throat,” Shroff said. “They can read it or they can ignore it. There may a little of this being done at a store like Whole Foods, but retailers in general have really fallen short in the perimeter of adding that value to shoppers.”

Youger said PINE did a “shop along” with people with diabetes. Once they got outside of the section of the store devoted to people with diabetes, they were lost, he said, unsure of what they could and couldn’t eat.

“It’s a lack of execution by stores,” he said.

One way perimeter departments could combine health and convenience, Shroff said, would be to create “tiered” meal kits combining protein, produce and other perimeter items. One tier could be low sugar, another energy, another recovery, for example.

Pandemic impact

“Health and wellness” is a fluid category, and during the pandemic, many consumers dropped more “restrictive” diets — keto, for example — but were   more likely to stick with Mediterranean, whole-food and other diets, Register said.

And regardless of this or that trend du jour, what always “rises to the top,” she said, is heart health.

Whatever particular form their approach to diet takes, almost half of all Americans — 48% — follow at least some approach, indicating that health and wellness is definitely on the minds of consumers, whether they put their intentions into action or not.

And retailers are getting the message.

“There is a real increase in investment in health,” Register said. “And there’s a lot of research showing a direct connection between increasing health outcomes and return on investments.”

Retail case study: Schnucks

One good retail example of an approach to health and wellness is St. Louis-based Schnucks’ "Good For You" program that helps shoppers monitor their healthier purchases, creating a simple to understand and follow approach to eat healthier foods.

Products make the Good For You list by meeting certain nutrition and ingredient parameters based on their categorization. Each category has specific criteria, but here are a few highlights:

  • Single ingredient fruits, vegetables, 100% whole grains, eggs and lean meats are included
  • Items are free from artificial flavors, sweeteners and colors
  • Items have less than 5 grams of saturated fat
  • Items have 8 grams or less added sugar
  • Items have 600 milligrams or less sodium