Transcript of Food & Restaurant Podcast – What is ‘Better For You?’ with Leah McGrath of Ingles Markets. Listen to the episode here.
[00:00:11] Adam Pierno: All right, welcome back to another episode of Food and Restaurant Marketing, the podcast. We are really excited. This will be our conclusion to season 2 and it’s been a very fun season so far but I have a feeling we may have saved the best for last. We have a fantastic guest who is a little different than the other folks that you’ve heard from. Today we have, joining us from Ingles Markets is Leah McGrath who is a registered dietitian. Knows a lot about nutrition, knows a lot about food, ingredients and some of the science behind what we eat and what we add to our meals, and what we’re consuming and also what we’re selling. So, welcome Leah.
[00:00:55] Leah McGrath: Thank you, Adam. Nice to be here.
[00:01:00] Adam: I’m really glad that we did this. We’ve been trying to set this one up for a while and I appreciate you hanging in there while we scheduled and re-scheduled that a few times.
[00:01:07] Leah: Yes, you know I wasn’t trying to play hard to get Adam, I promise. [laughs] I think we were both trying to play hard to get, with busy schedules and timings and everything, but it’s great to be here and be able to talk to you and your guests.
[00:01:24] Adam: Yes I know. Thank you, I’m really glad. Do you want to give the people a little bit of a background on where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing?
[00:01:31] Leah: Sure. I have been a registered dietitian for over 20 years. I’ve been a retail or supermarket dietitian for the majority of that for 17 years, but my background as a registered dietitian has also included work in public health, and I was a dietitian in the army believe it or not. I was an officer and dietitian in the army. That has been the past 20 some years but my life before that, I was involved in marketing as a head hunter and even before that, I worked in the restaurant space, Adam. I was a general manager, banquet manager, catering manager, so I really credit the restaurant world for first sparking my love for finding out more about food and learning more about food and even nutrition.
[00:02:32] Adam: Wow, that’s a really interesting background. So, you’ve seen it all. You’ve seen food from all sides and you’ve done the regiment, the discipline of the army and the craziness of the marketing side as well.
[00:02:43] Leah: Exactly, and being a dietitian is– a lot of people don’t know what the difference is between a registered dietitian and a nutritionist. Registered dietitians have to complete at least a four-year college education. We have to go through about 1200 hours of an internship. We have to pass a nationally administered board exam and we have to keep up continuing education credit every year. It is a pretty rigorous type of study. It’s very competitive to get into an internship and there’s a lot of science and chemistry behind becoming a registered dietitian.
[00:03:23] Adam: Yes. Well, that’s very interesting. Tell me a little bit before we get into our conversation today. As a dietitian working with a brand, what does that entail on a day to day basis?
[00:03:36] Leah: Well, my days are pretty atypical. Today, for example, I was down recording a TV segment and talking about ways that you can use all of the watermelon. My days vary between doing presentations, doing TV, hosting a radio program for our retailer, doing supermarket tours. I do a lot of writing for regional publications, but probably the biggest chunk of my day right now which has also been the case for about the past five to six years, is running social media for the retailer and for my own pages as well. Social media takes up a big chunk of my time right now.
[00:04:22] Adam: Right, I think it takes up a lot of everybody’s time but I do appreciate you being here and let’s get into the conversation today. We’ll be talking today about what does the phrase “Better for you” really mean? What is better for you? We hear it as a claim from CPG manufacturers, restaurants and people thinking about it as they shop, but I thought who better to help me answer that question than a registered dietitian that’s been doing this for a long time. Give me your overview on “better for you” as a claim and what it’s intended to mean.
[00:05:01] Leah: Well, I’m glad you said claim versus what it’s intended to mean. I think that it gets a little murky sometimes because what better for you might be for you, might be very different for somebody who might have diabetes or who might have celiac disease. It’s sort of a very general term. I think there are probably things that most health professionals and dietitians could agree upon that could fall under that “Better for you” might be more fruits and vegetables, or a product having more servings of fruits and vegetables. Less sodium.
Perhaps low in saturated fat, lower sugar amounts, minimally processed or could be higher in fiber. I think that there might be a few ideas that most people would agree on as being better for you, but then we start to get into the gray areas that might depend on a person’s dietary needs, their lifestyle, their food allergies, their food preferences so it gets a little complicated, it gets a little sticky.
[00:06:29] Adam: It happens very quickly, I think. When we start to think about– you mentioned celiacs or food allergies, so I know that if I want to have some good clean protein I can use peanuts or nuts, but if I have a nut allergy that’s obviously not better for me. That’s going to cause all kinds of problems. That’s where the gray area comes in. Even beyond the improved nutrition, I like the idea that people are trying to create products that offer improved nutrition and I think they have the right ideas at heart. But, when they say, “Better for you” is it always better for you? Or is it better than the competitor on the shelf that has 11 grams of sugar and they’re only adding 10 grams?
[00:07:21] Leah: Right, I think we start to get into the whole labeling conundrum and also sort of following a fad. You mentioned lean protein, so right now protein is exceptionally hot thanks to things like the Paleo diet and CrossFit. I see that becoming the “Better for you” perception, is all around protein right now. That’s one of the biggest areas where I think, they think brands are trying to shine the spotlight on products that have higher amounts of protein as being better for you and may not always be the case. But, I think right now protein is very hot.
I think even more so. I mean, we’ve seen other trends through the years. We’ve seen things like fiber, we’ve seen things like anti-oxidants but I think right now, higher protein amounts and lower sugar amounts; those are the two things that brands are trying to seek that competitive edge over their next door neighbor on the shelf and say, “Hey, we look better because we have more protein” or “We look better. We’re better for you because we have less sugar.”
[00:08:41] Adam: Right. Yes, it’s interesting. Last month we went to The Fancy Food Show in New York and in the past, I think it was driven new innovation in that space and the CPG space was driven a lot by flavor in the past. But now it seems nutrition and quality of nutrients is really forward in all the innovation. Everybody has, besides popcorn, everybody has something that’s really adding protein or a new way to sweeten without sugar and that seems to be really driving innovation.
[00:09:17] Leah: Yes. I think I’ve seen the same at Expo East, Expo West. I’m seeing reports on those and I would say you’re right on target with that.
[00:09:30] Adam: Earlier this season we interviewed Lucas Clark from MAD Greens, which if you’re not familiar with MAD Greens, it’s a chain of salad restaurants and they have these crazy customizable salads and I happen to be a super fan of the brand. He posited that all trends right now are driven by nutrition and trying to find this edge of “Better for you” so when he was saying they look for ingredients, that’s what they’re trying to do. It’s not just flavor, but it has to obviously taste good. He said they were looking in their culinary team for ways to get more protein in or get more fiber and really amp up the quality of the nutrition.
[00:10:14] Leah: Yes, I think that’s really exciting. As a dietitian, any time you can promote eating vegetables in a salad, I mean, we’re all for that. The top of our list is trying to get people to eat more vegetables and fruits and make those a bigger part of your plate or your bowl. That’s definitely a big selling point for me, but yes. It’s interesting Adam, you haven’t said the word superfood. Honestly, I’m glad you haven’t because I think that, it seemed like for a while every year we would have one superfood that everybody catered to. Whether it was pomegranate or kale, or something like that, but now I think you’re right, I think-
[00:11:08] Adam: Acai.
[00:11:09] Leah: Acai, right. Chia seeds. Now I think we’re seeing maybe a broader look, a broader scope at just making offerings in general. Better for you with more fruits, more vegetables, more protein, less sugar. Maybe not focusing so much on just one food.
[00:11:34] Adam: Leah, you triggered a great question. Do you believe that that is because we’re getting smarter about nutrition as a culture and we understand there’s no magic bullet or do you think the marketing has just worn off of the term superfood, and people are starting to spam it in their email?
[00:11:51] Leah: Yes. I don’t know. I hope the latter, that people are getting tired of that term. Are we getting smarter? I think we certainly have access to a lot more information. I don’t know if that always correlates with getting smarter or just getting bombarded with more information. I think the trends and the fads are flipping much more quickly now than they used to. It feels like when the Atkins diet was the big fad, that stuck around for quite some time, but I feel like now the food fads and food trends just change up. Their cycle is much shorter.
[00:12:38] Adam: That’s really interesting too. I’m glad you brought that up. In the restaurant space we see menus can shift quickly with LTOs and probably not as quickly as internal brand people would like them to, but pretty quickly they can add some things. If chia seeds become a trend, they can add a chia seed salad or an additive to a milkshake or something. But in the CPG world, when you’re talking about shelf space and grocery distribution, how fast do you see that shifting when an ingredient or an additive becomes popular? How long does it take to get to the market and how long does it stay on the shelf before it starts to disappear?
[00:13:20] Leah: Yes. I think going to events like the Fancy Food Show, Expo East, Expo West will give you an inkling of the coming fads and trends in food. Usually what we start seeing presented to buyers might be a little ahead of those shows. It’s kind of like a little trickle, right? At first it’s a little trickle and then the shows come and you see, for example, popcorn, you mentioned popcorn earlier. I remember one year it was like, all of a sudden we’re getting more people trying to introduce popcorn to us and there were like all different flavors and things like that. Then when you go to Expo East or Expo West, there are tons of popcorns there. Then you’re starting-
[00:14:11] Adam: Yes, it’s amazing.
[00:14:12] Leah: Yes. Then you’re just getting this flood of presentations for people to try and sell you popcorn. I don’t know in terms of time what the cycle is, but it’s still probably a lot faster. Then I think in the US, anyway, we’re such spoiled consumers. Our boredom threshold is so low that we get really bored so quickly and we want to move on to the next food, the next taste, sensation. Now we’re tired of sea salt caramel, we want sriracha. You have to be pretty nimble.
[00:14:56] Adam: Oh, that’s funny. Yes. You’re hitting on all the trends. Sriracha was in everything for a year. It’s still very popular. I just read that Auntie Anne’s has a sriracha pretzel [inaudible 00:15:06]
[00:15:06] Leah: Oh, that sounds good.
[00:15:09] Adam: I’ll be heading over to the mall for that for sure. Not better for you, but tasty as well.
[00:15:14] Leah: Yes. Exactly.
[00:15:15]Adam: I’ll do it. What do you think about Panera last year kind of went all in on the idea of the clean menu and I have my own take on that from a marketing standpoint, the use of the word clean. I would love to hear the perspective of a registered dietitian on the clean menu and what does that mean for “Better for you” claims and what does that mean for consumers?
[00:15:44] Leah: Yes. You’ve touched on one of my least favorite terms. One of my friends works for another retailer in the mid west and we had this discussion about that whole term, clean is like, what’s the opposite of clean? Is it something unclean or dirty?
[00:16:06] Adam: Totally, totally agree.
[00:16:07] Leah: Yes. She was saying, and I agree with this is that, “Why can’t we focus on clear?” Why can’t we focus on– if the brand’s idea is to simplify labeling or make things more understandable, or clearer to the consumer, or clear to the guest at the restaurant? I mean, I think everybody could get behind that, but when you start focusing on clean, I think it sets up this sort of caste system of food that implies that you’re better if you eat these foods because they’re clean.
If you’re eating at a competitor or buying these other options, which are unclean or dirty, you, therefore, are unclean or dirty in some way. Let’s not forget Chipotle because I think that when I see Panera making these sort of clean claims, I think, “Wow, this sort of reminds me of Chipotle in the pre-food safety nightmare days”. A lot of people frankly said on Twitter, “Hey, you got what was coming to you. Karma bit you in the butt on that one.”
[00:17:19] Adam: I totally agree. In fact, if you go back, I believe it might have been the first episode we posted of this podcast. We did a story on Chipotle going all in on food safety. It was in the aftermath of the first outbreak. Our position at that time was, “Hey, that’s the wrong move” because now you’re saying, “We promise this won’t happen again” and when you break that promise we’re seeing what’s happening, right?
[00:17:44] Leah: You’re right. I think it’s a dangerous space to try and put up your marketing flag. I think it’s kind of risky.
[00:17:56] Adam: I agree. It’s like service. I never can promise flawless service because it’s a promise that is guaranteed to be not kept. Clean food, it just takes one social media image of some somebody who finds a toothpick in their food or something that all of a sudden it turns into a snarky meme.
[00:18:16] Leah: Yes. What reminds me, if you’ve ever been traveling across the United States and you see a big sign on a roadside that says, “Clean restrooms here” it’s like, well, that’s what we expect. Right? We expect-
[00:18:33] Adam: I sure hope they’re not filthy, yes.
[00:18:34] Leah: [laughs] We expect our food to be clean. We expect a certain level of food safety and safe food handling. We don’t want you to have to brag about that because that’s an understanding that we have that it’s supposed to be clean anyway.
[00:18:51] Adam: I feel the same way about restaurants. I just read an article about Papa John’s and they have a new CMO, and that’s a brand I like. They want to talk more about food quality. To me, I say, “Food quality?” I take that as table stakes. I assume that the food is quality or you wouldn’t be in business. Reminding me of that, I’m not sure that I’m motivated, but with clean food to me, maybe I’m just hypercritical and hyper-skeptical. It raises more questions for me as a consumer than it answers or makes me want to go there.
[00:19:26] Leah: Yes. I don’t know if I mind quality as much because maybe that implies more of people taking care of where the food’s coming from and where they’re sourcing it from, and how they’re storing it. I don’t know if I mind quality quite as much, but I see where you’re going with that.
[00:19:48] Adam: But you do not care for clean?
[00:19:59] Leah: I don’t care for clean, no.
[00:19:54] Adam: Let’s talk a little bit about your neck of the woods in the grocery isle. I know that there’s a lot of new stuff happening on shelf and we’ve already touched on fancy food and the health innovation. Any other trends that you’re seeing in the grocery that are more “Better for you” claims, but that also as a dietitian that you can get behind and think they’re really making advances?
[00:20:17] Leah: Well, I think there are so many different things happening. Sometimes I just like to go to the store without any shopping list or agenda just to try and pay attention to what I see there. I feel very excited that I’m seeing a lot more innovative packaging when it comes to vegetables and fruits to make them more accessible, grab and go prepped so that people don’t have to spend a lot of time cutting. That’s one really cool trend that I’m really happy to see. The other thing, of course, I see that I’m not as crazy about is non-GMO project labeling on products that have no genetic material whether it’s-
[00:20:59] Adam: Wait, can you repeat that? Your voice just cut out there.
[00:21:01] Leah: Yes, sorry. I’m not as happy about seeing non-GMO project labels on products that don’t have genetic material. When you see a non-GMO project label on a bottle of water, or sea salt, or cat litter. I recognize why companies are putting that pay-for-play label on products but I think it’s going to confuse consumers and then they’re going to just start ignoring it because they know that it has little or no value.
[00:21:42] Adam: Right, I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s when we think about green washing and trying to disguise everything as better for you then the tide is going down and everybody starts ignoring those labels. As a consumer, I think I’m never really sure what’s good for me and when I see GMO, non-GMO I honestly have no idea. Is that bad? Is that good? I don’t know.
[00:22:09] Leah: Yes, Adam. I finally decided I think it’s because of the G that I’ve had people who actually confuse non-GMO with gluten free. Because they don’t know-
[00:22:24] Adam: That’s interesting it’s more just from saturation of media coverage that they just kind of confuse those two ideas.
[00:22:31] Leah: Yes, a lot of people, whether we’re talking about non-GMO project or gluten free, or even organic that they don’t know. They think that those labels automatically also imply health or nutrition when they don’t.
[00:22:51] Adam: That’s dead on. We did some research here for a CPG brand of snack that has the “Better for you” shine on it and we found out that consumers liked that it was organic. They attributed it to some health benefit, but they actually had no idea how to draw a line between the word organic and a health benefit. I don’t think there actually is one. It’s just a cleaner way to grow the food.
[00:23:17] Leah: Right, organic was designed as a way to provide agricultural certification for products. Certain standards when it comes to how crops are grown and with what input. What pesticides, because organic does use pesticides but many people don’t understand that. Then it also has to do with how what animals are fed and access to outdoors. It’s just specific standards. Nowhere, if you read the organic standards does it have anything to do with nutrition or even food safety because, of course, we have recalls of organic products several times a year so it obviously is not a guarantee of food safety either.
[00:24:10] Adam: No, I totally hear you. Then, when we think about the trends- you mentioned super food then we talked a little bit about clean, gluten free, non-GMO, organic, all these trends. It’s interesting to see how the trends make it to market and then how they get diluted. You see popcorn came back and then now there’s 60 brands and each one of them has 10 skews with different flavors. It’s so saturated that it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. Not that that is a nutrition play but I see that also with flavor. At Fancy Food again I saw a lot of seaweed products and I wonder how far will that go before that’s just a totally watered down trend where it just becomes a flavor that’s added to other things.
[00:24:59] Leah: Right. The tide comes in and then it starts to go out again as people just sort of go, “You know, I’m tired of that flavor,” like the example I gave earlier the sea salt caramel or the sriracha and they’re ready for something new. They’re ready for the dill pickle popcorn, or some other kind of flavor that will intrigue their taste buds.
[00:25:34] Adam: Yes, they’re looking for the next one. I do like the dill pickle actually, that’s a good flavor. I know we talked super food, we talked clean, what about the phrase “Free from”? I’ve been seeing it almost as a substitute for “Better for you” and it’s used a lot as “Free from lifestyle” kind of like you referenced CrossFit at the top of this talk. “Free from” has become a banner people can get on.
[00:25:59] Leah: Yes, my goodness I have a whole slide and a presentation I’m working on now about “Free from” claims because, remember fat-free, Adam? Fat-free has gone by the way side but with sugar-free, or no sugar added. We’ve got GMO-free, we’ve got non-GMO, or antibiotic-free, hormone-free, free range, cage-free. I think that whole “Free from” has taken on a big personality. There is just so much in that space and I think again, we have a situation where consumers are confused about what the alternative is. Cage-free eggs for example. I will admit I only learned this more recently, cage-free eggs being a really big thing or the word cage-free. I did not realize that our broiler chickens, the ones we eat, are never raised in cages anyway. Did you know that they’re-
[00:27:25] Adam: No, and I have also seen hormone-free chicken or anti-steroid chicken and then foster farms have said legally, you’re not allowed to have that anyway so I don’t know what produce was talking about. It’s interesting how they try to make those claims.
[00:27:39] Leah: Yes, they do it and they will admit that they do it for marketing reasons to have a competitive advantage. It’s kind of like watching a domino when one brand label does that, that everybody has to get in line to do the same thing because nobody wants to be the odd man out. If the chicken brand puts on their label, “Antibiotic-free,” then that’s not technically correct. They can say, “No antibiotics administered” then every other brand’s going to go, “Well, we’re gonna do it too now because everybody’s going to be thinking that we’re the ones who have antibiotics even if we don’t.”
[00:28:20] Adam: Yes, they’re all updating their packaging the next day as soon as they hear that claim from their competitor, that’s for sure. It’s a crazy world but I think it’s making it hard for consumers to keep pace because I look at “Free from” and to me it seems like it will stay fringe. It hasn’t really caught on mainstream yet. I haven’t seen it as something that restaurant brands definitely not, but I haven’t seen it in grocery either really take hold as there’s no “Free from” section or there’s no “Free from” promotion but the food brands that like it or that use it are really, really into it.
[00:29:01] Leah: I think the only place that we’ve really seen sections in the store and labeling has really been gluten free universally. That really kind of got adopted and then it has FDA backing now so that serve a separate category though.
[00:29:21] Adam: Yes and there’s actually traceable reasons why it’s important. I have noticed though in the groceries we’re in Scottsdale, Arizona, and I’ve noticed that our stores out here have added a snack area to the produce section. In the produce section there will be one or two isles set up that have the “Better for you” snacks and some of the products I would consider “Free from” or cleaner. Are you guys also doing that?
[00:29:52] Leah: We have a lot of our newer stores have a bulk food section so that’s real popular. In the produce section, we’ve always had things like apple chips and different kinds of nut and fruit bars. Those have always been very popular in that area. But as to a separate section within produce, no, I don’t think we have anything that I would describe that way.
[00:30:24] Adam: Those things have always been part of the produce like apple chips and fruit leather. Some of those products that are just little bit better for you. Okay, well I think we have run the gamut here of topics. I really appreciate you making time to chat with us today.
[00:30:42] Leah: It’s been a pleasure, Adam. Thank you.
[00:30:47] Adam: Leah, is there anything that you have going on that you want to talk about?
[00:30:50] Leah: Well, if people want to find me, they can find me on Twitter. I’m @InglesDietitian on Twitter and I am on Facebook as Leah McGrath Dietitian, on Facebook as well. I am happy to interact with people on social media. I think one of the things that I’m probably most proud of right now that we’re doing is we work a lot with local farmers and vendors and we have monthly events in our stores to highlight locally grown and produced products. That is probably my most fun right now.
[00:31:31] Adam: I love that. Actually, Twitter is how you and I met, so I can vouch for the fact that if you reach out to Leah she will respond pretty quickly. Also, don’t forget Leah also has a radio show that she’s been doing for over 10 years. 12 years is it?
[00:31:48] Leah: About that, I think, yes.
[00:31:50] Adam: You can download that. I’ll include a link to the podcast. Every episode is released as a podcast just like this one. It’s called the Ingles Information Aisle. I will add a link to the show notes here so that people who enjoyed this talk can hear some more.
[00:32:06] Leah: Great.
[00:32:09] Adam: Alright. Well, thank you very much, Leah. I really appreciate your time and as always to our listeners, we appreciate all the feedback that we get. You can email us Adam@foodandrestaurantmarketing or on Twitter FandRM. We love to hear feedback especially when it’s positive. You can keep the negative stuff.
[00:32:26] Leah: [laughs]
[00:32:28] Adam: I’m just kidding, I’ll take that too. [laughs]
[00:32:29] Leah: Thanks, Adam.
[00:32:30] Adam: Alright, well, thanks again, Leah. I appreciate it.
Listen to the episode here.