For years, we’ve been told to avoid a grocery store’s center aisles if we want to eat healthy. That’s where the bad stuff lurks — so the claim goes — the candy, chips and sodas in all their sugary, carb-y and oil-heavy renditions. But it’s time to take another stroll down those middle aisles.
Driven by changing consumer tastes and new health trends — particularly a new passion for protein — the center of the store has fundamentally changed.
“The notion of shopping in just one section of a store is a pet peeve of mine,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered diet nutritionist and creator of BetterThanDieting.com. “It’s time to listen to reason rather than hype.”
If you’ve been shunning the center of the store based on outdated food-snobbery, you’re missing out.. These days, the center aisles are brimming with products boasting high amounts of protein, from protein-fortified versions of breakfast cereal and pasta. There are now even cake mixes and ice creams that pack a protein punch.
According to Nielsen analytics, 55 percent of American households say that items with “high protein” are important when they draw up their shopping lists. The 2015-2020 USDA Dietary guidelines for adult women are to consume 46 grams of protein a day. For adult men, it’s 56 grams. Athletes, pregnant women and nursing mothers need even more — 71 grams daily. Consumers, particularly millennials, now routinely read food labels, looking for this critical macronutrient. Food purveyors have responded by doubling the number of packaged products advertising “high protein” content on their labels between 2013 and 2017, according to Innova Market Insights.
“From novel and exotic animal protein products to plant-based dairy alternatives and energy bars made with seeds and legumes, we’ve seen a steady rise in food and beverages formulated with and marketed to emphasize protein content,” says Daniel Granderson, an analyst for Packaged Facts, a market research firm.
In a recent Packaged Facts poll, consumers said they prize food that is affordable, convenient and easy to prepare — all adjectives that describe the center aisles’ offerings.
That’s where the unheralded protein heavyweights reside — the canned chilis, soups and stews on the shelves, the frozen meatballs in the freezers and the sliced meats in the refrigerated section.
Why now? Advances in technology have allowed food purveyors to offer better-quality, better-tasting meat. Canned fish and meats have long been a place to find shelf-stable protein in the center of the store, but recently those choices have grown in variety and become healthier says Barbara Ruhs, a former Harvard nutritionist who now works as a retail health consultant. “There’s certainly been a lot of improvement in canned foods — like low-sodium alternatives and removing MSG and gluten.”
Steve Venenga, vice president of marketing for the Grocery Products segment at Hormel Foods, says Hormel Foods products have evolved with the times. “Our focus is on how consumers’ lifestyles and shopping patterns are changing. Across the board, we’ve worked on keeping our ingredient lists cleaner.”
Make the Most of the Middle
But how can we avoid the dietary minefields flanking the protein-rich products in the center aisles? “I always tell shoppers, ‘Don’t come to the store hungry; you’re more likely to make last-minute directions that aren’t the best,’” says Amy Peick, a dietician for Coborn’s supermarkets in Minnesota.
Fortunately, even the diet minefield of the snack and chip aisle have become healthier, filling up with high protein options. There are chip varieties made with protein-rich beans instead of potatoes. In addition, you’ll find a proliferation of healthy energy bars, a large variety of meat jerky products and single-serving nut butters. In all, protein-based snack options have nearly doubled in the last ten years. Similarly, the drink aisle, notorious for high-sugar offerings, now has shakes and smoothies concoctions that are packed with protein.
“If you’re not shopping the center aisles, you’re missing out on many wonderful foods,” BetterThanDieting’s Taub-Dix says. “Make the most of the middle.”