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The thin blue lines 

In their ongoing battle for our loyalty, supermarkets have been increasingly focused on making their stores destination spots—not just places to buy food, but also services like prescriptions, photo finishing, flowers and clothing. Fortunately, the latest supermarket trend is turning our attention back to their prime products, food.

In this case, think blue. Both major Metro chains, Superstore and Sobeys, have lines of “blue label foods” (so called because, for both chains, the product label is a pale blue) that are touted as healthy. The prime objective is to help consumers make healthier choices easily. These blue label foods are versions of their own in-house brands (President’s Choice for Superstore, Compliments for Sobeys), and they’re targeting busy shoppers who want to eat well but don’t always have time to analyze labels.

Superstore had their “Too Good to Be True” line for quite some time, and has replaced it with the “Blue Menu” imprint. Blue Menu items are designated as having either less fat or fewer calories (at least 25 percent), or higher fibre (minimum 4g/serving) than their regular counterparts. As well, there’s no MSG, artificial colours or flavours, and no hydrogenated oils. This spring, Sobeys countered Superstore with the introduction of its own blue line, the new Compliments “balance-équilibre” products. This line was created to fit the specifications of the Heart and Stroke Foundation in order to earn the Health Check designation. (Health Check is the national not-for-profit food information program, developed and monitored by nutritionists and dieticians.)

It might seem as though Sobeys has one-upped Superstore in obtaining the Health Check logo—it’s recognizable, national and independent. Sobeys has to meet the strict guidelines set out by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, as opposed to developing a line using company guidelines. As it happens, side-by-side comparison of both chains’ products will often show similar products from both lines to be nutritionally equal. Both blue lines offer a wide variety of products, from frozen desserts to entrees to snacks, from ready-made foods to raw ingredients like brown rice. (Do we really need a label to tell us brown rice is good for us?)

Both lines compare favourably in quality and selection, but for flavour, my money’s on the Blue Menu line. Admittedly, I’ve sampled far more of the Superstore line because it’s been out longer, but I haven’t found any of the Sobeys meals memorable enough to want to go back for more. A few of my Blue Menu favourites include a roasted vegetable lasagna (makes me forget my carnivorous leanings), raspberry fruit spread (low sugar “jam”) and Cajun-seasoned chicken breasts.

For health-conscious shoppers, these new lines seem great: you go in, pick up everything with a blue label and poof! You’re eating healthy—or so you think. And that’s where your critical consumer mind must click in. Although the blue labels point us in the right direction, they should be used as guides. If you are really concerned about things like sodium or fibre, you still need to read the label. For example, some foods in both lines, in particular instant soups, are great tasting and low in fat, but high in sodium. Snack foods are one item I just can’t get into—I’ve found “real” chocolate or potato chips satisfy a craving faster and more completely.

Now that the blue lines are launched, next comes green—organic, that is. Both Sobeys and Superstore have organic lines, both sporting green labels. Superstore has Canada’s first organic baby formula; Sobeys has around 60 products labelled organic as it enters a burgeoning new market.

More of Liz Feltham’s colourful reviews online: www.foodcritic.ca

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