Ask our Nutritionist: How Stonyfield and Other Websites Provide Nutrition Advice
Many food and health websites include the services of a nutritionist to answer consumer questions by email or on the site. Vicki Koenig, MS, RD, CDN is a Nutritionist who works for Stonyfield Farm and one of her responsibilities there is responding by email to “Ask our Nutritionist” questions. Vicki receives between 40 and 70 questions a month and answers them all individually, although for some she peruses her archive of her previous answers, which is categorized by topic, and the articles she wrote for the site. The most common are gluten-free, diet, and probiotic questions. People are also interested in where the milk comes from and how the cows are treated. There are many “off-the-wall” ones; the strangest of which was a request for a yogurt-covered dog biscuit recipe (which she found and sent). One of the most absurd was someone asking can your stomach explode from a food-eating contest (it can’t, Vicki assured me).
Despite their disclaimer (The information provided by our nutritionist is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or give medical advise [sic]. Always consult your family health practitioner before altering your health regimen) people ask Vicki questions that are out of the context of her role. There are many from people who are desperately looking for answers to serious health problems, and she refers them to sites like the American Dietetic Association or other profession organizations. For instance, someone recently wrote that she has lupus and wanted to know what to do, and Vicki provided links but not a personalized diet.
To ask Vicki a question requires a name and email address, which makes sense since she responds by email. There is also a picture of her with her daughters and a bio; both make her seem very human and welcoming. When I asked, Vicki said that she needed to update the picture since her children are older now and that a marketing person contributed to part of the bio. She emphasized that she is very human. She stated that she’s a health professional, working mom, business partner with her husband and a consumer too.
Vicki also answers some of the questions that arrive through Facebook especially if clarification is needed. She contributed to the FAQs on the website and wrote all the articles in the Healthy Tips Library. She doesn’t respond to Twitter. Vicki has her own Facebook page, which she uses frequently, and a less used Twitter account. Her private practice has a website as well, which links to her Stonyfield articles (but does not include an Ask the Nutritionist feature).
One of the things I was curious about, especially after learning the volume of questions Vicki gets, was why Stonyfield doesn’t promote Vicki’s Q&A more and why it is done as private correspondence as opposed to being displayed and archived prominently on the site. Stonyfield’s response was:
We agree that our Ask our Nutritionist is a valuable and beneficial feature for our consumers. We can and should do a better job at featuring some of the frequently asked questions that consumers raise as they relate to health through good nutrition and organic foods. We tried to address this by providing related topics in our Healthy Tips Library, as well as focus on key product attributes that Stonyfield can deliver i.e. DHA, Omega 3s, etc.
I looked at a few other food company websites: Del Monte and Lean Cuisine are two that offer a list of Q&A with a nutritionist. Del Monte’s features a picture and bio of their nutritionist and an uncategorized list of questions with the promise that a new one is answered weekly from those submitted. Lean Cuisine has far more questions which are selected from some of “the most popular ones” asked and categorized. While the topics make sense, not all categories are populated. Some of the answers include product promotion. There is no bio with the picture of the nutritionist and registration is required to ask a question. Both are easy to find from the home pages.
The Dana Farber Cancer Center website includes a categorized Ask the Nutritionist Archive. The questions and answered are very detailed and specific to cancer patients. They also include a first name, last initial, and city and state, making them seem more authentic.Like the Stonyfield site, they are hard to find (without doing a search).
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has an Ask the Nutritionist blog, where the comment field is used to ask questions and the answers are included below the question. While not categorized by topic, they are scrollable and many are very detailed and specific. There is also a picture and name but not a bio of the nutritionist. The blog is hard to find from the Dept. of Public Health site.
Go Ask Alice, a website developed by Columbia University primarily for college and high school students, has a page of nutrition questions. While the people responding are not identified by name or picture, the site states that all questions are answered by a team including Columbia University health educators. Each question includes the date originally published and the date last updated/reviewed and ends with links to related Q&As.
Curious I searched a little more and found other examples. Some, like Meritus Endocrinology, have an extensive archive while Washington Hospital Center’s Ask the Dietitian has a short list of questions. All the ones I found archived questions, although without any identifying information or a date, and most made it easy to ask questions. Stonyfield is therefore unusual in not providing an archive of questions.
If I was redesigning the Stonyfield site, I would include Vicki on the home page and let people coming to the site know that she is available to answer questions because it is such a valuable service and one that benefits the company in the helpfulness of this service to those who manage to find it on the site. (Of course, if more people know of Vicki’s availability, then her services might have to be limited.) I would include Vicki’s most recent Q&A on the home page with a link to the archive as a draw. Finally I would include at least a partial archive of questions and answers and, like Go Ask Alice! would include a date, and, like Dana Farber, would include at least a first name, city, and state because it makes it seem more like it came from a real person. However none of the questions I looked at on the above sites were generic or seemed fabricated because of the level of detail. The archive could prove valuable since someone else might have a question that you didn’t think to ask but benefit from. While there is already an enormous amount of information available online, the credibility of a nutritionist and the easy to digest (not an intentional pun) format of a Q&A could only benefit Stonyfield and allow more consumers to learn from other people’s questions and Vicki’s answers.