Nutrition, which is the series of processes that allow the body to take in and assimilate food and liquids to sustain health and promote growth, is being redefined. Marketing terms such as local, natural, organic, grass-fed, chemical-free, preservative-free, etc., are being used interchangeably with fats, whole grains, fiber, sodium and vitamins — the necessary components of a healthy diet. This shift is a troubling development that has the potential to confuse consumers even more about the fundamental aspects of health as it relates to nutrition.

The reframing of nutrition was on full display during the Research Chefs Association’s meeting in Charlotte, NC, earlier this month. During a panel discussion about the US Department of Agriculture’s school food service guidelines one school food service director extolled the healthy virtues of a sausage made with grass-fed meat. Another food service director lamented about all of the “chemicals” in the products fed to school children. While the goal of the session was to discuss the USDA’s latest school nutrition guidelines and how to meet them in a cost-effective manner, it was clear several speakers were focusing their attention beyond lean meats, whole grains, non-fat milk and getting children to eat more products featuring fruits and vegetables.

Product differentiation is a fundamental component of marketing, and as the retail and food service categories have become more competitive many companies have chosen to reformulate and market their products with an eye toward purity. There is no doubt the natural, clean-label trend has significant potential, but its value is rooted in consumer perception rather than the demonstrated nutritive quality of the end products.

These trends are not going to go away either. In fact, if anything, they are beginning to gain momentum. Steve Burd, the chairman and chief executive officer of Safeway, Inc. talks about how his supermarket chain may “own the wellness space” by focusing on, among other things, the development of three private brands: Open Nature, O Organics and Eating Right.

The Open Nature brand features products made with ingredients perceived as natural. Safeway helpfully notes on its web site that there are no regulations defining what is natural and that companies are free to establish their own standards and abide by them. But the web site also states “it goes without saying that there are health benefits to eating more of the natural stuff and less of the artificial stuff.”

Of the three private brands Safeway sees growing its presence in the wellness category, only the Eating Right line focuses on specific dietary needs. Introduced in 2007, products included under the brand feature at least one dietary benefit such as high fiber, low sodium, low fat or multi-grain. The company said it is in the process of evolving the brand to make it more relevant to consumers.

Concern regarding the impact of obesity in this country continues, and as the US baby boomer population continues to focus on maintaining some portion of their quality of life through diet and exercise, health and wellness will remain a significant trend for food and beverage companies for the foreseeable future.

That a retailer like Safeway sees so much opportunity in the health and wellness space underscores the degree to which consumers yearn for products they believe will deliver greater nutritive quality. But a bright line must be drawn between food and beverage nutrition claims and statements aimed at appealing to consumers by differentiating a product and motivating a purchasing decision. The marketplace is rife with confusion about what constitutes a healthy diet. Continuing to give marketing claims equal weight to nutrition claims will only diminish the relevance of the health and wellness space to consumers.