September 18th, 2014
We’ve been hearing for years how consumers want “better” or “healthier” options, but then go out and gorge themselves on Big Macs and processed foods high in fats, sodium and calories.
One of the problems has been sorting through the mountain of information available to shoppers.
Some of it is deliberately misleading, yet even truthful packaging can require a dietician to sort out the conflicting details. How much salt, for example, is too much? Are whole grains really better for you, or just a plot by the tree huggers? The media doesn’t help matters, often going off on obscure problems like “pink slime” while ignoring the dangers of sugary sodas or processed foods. And “common knowledge” may be no help. For example, we’ve all been told it’s better to buy canned tuna that’s packed in water rather than in oil, right?
At least, not according to Guiding Stars, a system of food ratings first developed by New England grocery retailer Hannaford Bros., now being licensed to other retailers and even foodservice outlets like university & corporate cafeterias, schools and hospitals. That’s because salt might be a hidden downside, and not all processors use the same amount of sodium. You can scan the label, but Guiding Stars makes it easier to compare products. The principle is simple: all the foods in the store get a star rating that tells you at a glance whether it’s better or not so better.
And the good news is: you make the choice. One of the objections to government regulation in the food space is that it takes away personal choice and responsibility. The Guiding Stars system allows consumers to choose what they eat while making informed choices. The ratings are science-based, having been developed by a panel of five nutritional experts who came up with a proprietary, patented algorithm that measures the “good” and “bad” in food, debiting bad things like added salt or sugar or trans-fats, and giving points for good things like vitamin & minerals, or whole grains. The food then receives 0-3 stars.
For example, whole milk receives a “fat” zero while skim milk earns a “lean” 3 stars. Hot dogs get zero stars, while 96% lean ground beef gets three. Canned green beans with added salt are a fail, while spinach (fresh, frozen or canned without added salt) all get three stars.
Popeye would be proud.
The markings appear on marketing materials, department signs, scale labels (for meat & fish), but most importantly, on unit price tags. This makes it easy for shoppers to make quick comparisons and judgements. Despite talk about smart phone apps that can give you nutritional information from Q-codes, they’re still relatively untried. No app beats your own eyes.
Unlike some efforts to mask a corporate marketing wolf in a “better for you” sheep’s clothing, Guiding Stars claims to not be influenced by price, brand or manufacturer trade groups. The program boasts over 100,000 foods in its database, and participating retailers and foodservice operators have to upload nutritional information on all items sold (fresh foods are rated by data from the USDA/ARS National Nutrient Database SR-22). The results can be tough: while 100% of all fruits & vegetables get at least one star, only 28% of breads & baked goods and just 11% of soups do. Ouch.
Currently Guiding Stars is in 1,700 stores in 20 states. And of course it has an iPhone App. While not surprisingly, Hannaford’s parent company Delhaize Group banners have embraced Guiding Stars, other chains including Marsh are coming on-board by licensing the concept. The Surgeon General has even cited Guiding Stars as “a powerful model” that helps consumers make smart choices without policing their food or restricting what they can eat.
It’s nice to report a little good news.