The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Eating by Numbers

Eating by Numbers

Dietitian Dialogues

February 26, 2012

Have we all just made eating more complicated? Everything from cholesterol to cookies has some kind of number attached to it. Are we eating more from our left-brains? Is that getting us anywhere?

As a nutritionist, I cower from calorie counting for fear my clients will start seeing numbers in their heads and lose the natural ability to do what is so fundamental to being human – EAT.

Anyone in the business of food these days is guilty of making the process of eating food more complicated for the public. If you manufacture food, perhaps you over-process the healthy nutrients right out of your product for the sake of better taste, convenience or shelf stability. If you sell food, maybe you choose the foods that sell the best, even when you know they’re not healthy for our children. If you cook the food, maybe you load up your recipes with sodium because you know people can’t help but like food doused in salt. 

If you give advice about food and eating, like me, you might be spending more time on the science of food and digestion versus the lived experience of eating. This can be downright confusing and mind-boggling for most people. “What’s the difference between a trans fat and a monounsaturated fat? How many of those omega-3 fats should we be eating?” 

There should be no need for someone to get an advanced degree in nutrition to eat, but that seems to be where we’ve found ourselves today.

People are desperate to find ways to eat healthy. We, as an industry, are trying our best to respond to this need. But are we helping or are we making it worse?

Wal-Mart recently announced its “Great for You” icon that will be placed on foods that meet certain nutritional criteria. This is supposed to help the consumer make better choices. This concept mimics other supermarket initiatives such as Hannaford’s Guiding Stars or NuVal. Rather than ask the consumer to flip the box and decipher the government-mandated nutrition label, we’re supposedly simplifying the process with these sprouting shelf-tags.

At first glance, this does get people thinking about what they’re buying. If those crackers score a higher mark than their competitor, we might think twice. But let’s be real. How much better for you is a Cheez-It than a Cheeto? We are living in a minefield of nutrition controversy and escalating health care issues. People want solutions but we may not be getting to the root of the problem. 

Some supermarkets understand that delicate balance where the customer wants their Coke and potato chips, but they also want wholesome advice. In this case, it’s not even worth it to put the Lay’s in the same playing field as the arugula. Labeling all of the food may be doing a disservice to our customers. We all know there isn’t anything healthy about a potato chip. What the consumer doesn’t know, however, is that kale can be cooked a hundred different ways or that chia seeds rival flax in their nutritional power.

People want convenience, taste and value, but today, they are also desperate for healthy. Show them how to do it. Make those foods that are healthy accessible to them through discounts and cooking demos. 

We should not be eating by numbers. We need to be more creative than that, putting enjoyment and health as the main ingredients of our store’s recipe.

Sally Lynch is a licensed dietitian-nutritionist with over 15 years experience as a personal counselor and consultant to the food industry. Sally has published numerous articles on nutrition, which have appeared in national magazines such as Whole Living and Alternative Medicine, and holds a BS in Nutritional Biochemistry and French and a MS in Human Nutrition. She lives in West Hartford with her husband and three children.  

As a nutritionist working for a supermarket, you have a unique outlook on how retailers are increasing health awareness at the store level and the kind of questions that shoppers ask. Each month, we'll be featuring a guest column, written by a nutritionist, that communicates this point of view on a variety of topics. And we want to hear from you. If you are a supermarket nutritionist interested in sharing your perspective and insights, we would love to help you share your thoughts! Please contact Allison Bloom at