bag of groceries

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Safeway, North America’s third-largest supermarket chain, has been working hard over the last few years to build a reputation as a “healthy” grocery store – my boyfriend calls it “Whole Foods lite” – and it looks like it’s starting to pay off. In 2008, this CNN study named Safeway the second healthiest grocery store in America, beating out Trader Joe’s and coming in second only to – yep – Whole Foods itself.

Safeway’s newest initiative is SimpleNutrition, a program designed to alert shoppers to the best, most nutritious aspect of a given food. Safeway’s shelves are now covered in colorful stickers that say things like “Sugar Free,” “Low Fat,” “Good Source of Calcium,” and “Good Source of Iron.” Safeway breaks down the categories this way:

There are 22 benefit messages included in the program encompassing two groups of messages: those that meet lifestyle or dietary needs and those that meet specific nutrition or ingredient criteria.

There are 18 types of the latter “benefit message” – things like “Lean Protein” and “100% Juice” – and only 4 lifestyle benefit messages. Guess which lifestyle made the cut?

You got it! “Gluten Free” gets its very own label, along with “Organic,” “Natural,” and “Sugar Free.”

There’s a lot to analyze in these four little labels, and in the SimpleNutrition program itself. For one thing, it’s becoming clear that Americans are growing more and more educated about what they put into their bodies, and are increasingly demanding better and clearer choices, not just from manufacturers but from distributors as well. No longer satisfied with fine print and hidden Nutrition Information, we want the facts printed in plain view to help facilitate a more informed shopping experience. Since we GF folks have been peering at tiny labels for years, it’s pretty cool that the general population is starting to do the same thing – and starting to learn about the challenges that pop up when one decides to take control over one’s diet.

The other interesting thing here is the 4 labels that Safeway has chosen. At first, I was really excited to see that Gluten Free had made it onto such an exclusive little list. I took it as a sign of the exploding growth of the GF market, which has done so much to expand the variety of GF products available. “I can’t believe gluten intolerance beat out lactose intolerance and got its own label!” I thought, giddily.

But then I thought some more. Yes, “Lactose Free” isn’t here. But neither is “Nut Free” or “Fish Free.” That’s when I realized that the other three labels – “Organic,” “Natural,” and “Sugar Free” – are all about lifestyle choices rather than allergies or sensitivities (of course some people do have sensitivity to sugar – I’m one of them, actually – but I’m pretty sure that sugar allergies aren’t exactly common). So what Safeway is doing here isn’t so much acknowledging celiac or gluten intolerance, but acknowledging the needs of people who go GF by choice. Technically that includes people with GI or celiac, which is great, but the fact remains that these labels don’t really have anything to do with allergens or food safety – rather, they’re about facilitating a certain lifestyle that you’ve chosen.

I’m not sure where I come down on this, ultimately. On the one hand – labels! We in the GF community do tend to love our labels. And I don’t think there’s much use in drawing lines in the sand between people who can’t eat gluten and people who don’t eat gluten, especially when our own doctors are often so quick to throw everyone in the latter category. The more the merrier, I always say, so why exclude anyone from our awesome little GF community? On the other hand, aligning “Gluten Free” with “Natural” does send a certain message about the nature of a GF diet, and contributes to that “Oh, gluten-free is such a huge trend now” attitude.

You can get lots of information, including a full list of SimpleNutrition tags, at the SimpleNutrition website.

What do you think? Do you like the new labels? Feel like they missed something or overdid it? Have it at in the comments!