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Guiding Stars

Posted by tinako on October 15, 2010

I just listened to a Yale Rudd Center podcast about Guiding Stars, a program wherein supermarkets put stars on their shelf price labels to show how nutritious an item is.  The nutrition criteria comes from people interested in your health, not the food manufacturers, so it is not watered down to meaninglessness.  It came about when Hannaford supermarket chain asked its customers how it could add value, and they responded that they wanted an easier way to judge nutrition during a rushed shopping trip.

Dr. Lisa A. Sutherland

Lisa A. Sutherland, the inteviewee, gave an example that shredded wheat (no added sugar) would be a three-star cereal, Cheerios or Kix would be two-stars because they have some added sugar, Honey-Nut Cheerios would be a one-star cereal (6 g or less sugar), and Froot Loops, etc, would be no stars.  Parents could tell their children they could pick any cereal with a star, for instance.

The nice thing about this is that all you need is a supermarket that wants to add value for their customers; there is no need to try to talk a food manufacturer into marking their product “eat less” or making a law (good luck with that).

Surveys of customers at Hannaford show 75% of them are aware of the program and 50% use the stars on every visit.  A bonus for supermarkets is in addition to providing a service that their customers value, so far in practice the program increases overall sales while decreasing sales of no-star items.  Pre-program, high sugar cereals (12+g/serving) drove sales, and after the program came along that data flipped with lower-sugar cereals on top.  Win-win.

Wouldn’t you like to see this in your supermarket?  Ask them!  I just emailed Wegmans.


3 Responses to “Guiding Stars”

  1. tinako said

    Wegman’s reply:

    Dear Tina,

    Here is a helpful atricle written by our nutrition manager:

    “Short of becoming a registered dietitian, how do you figure out which foods have greater nutritional value? Busy consumers tell us that if they flip to the Nutrition Facts panel, it’s to look at only one or two nutrients or ingredients. And usually it’s to root out villains like trans fats, sodium, carbs or high fructose corn syrup depending on the news of the day. Nutrition scoring systems, through complex computerized formulas, try to show how much nutrition bang a food or beverage has for the calories. Wegmans has no immediate plans to implement such as system, though we appreciate innovation and could be swayed by convincing consumer research.

    Different systems = different scores

    Some retailers are adding symbols to shelf tags something like a restaurant, hotel or movie rating system: as in one fork (not so good) to five forks (superb). Others are rating on a 100 point scale, so that apples and oranges get different scores. Depending on who designed the scoring system, foods can get very different ratings. To add to the discussion, many national brand products already carry better-for-you logos like “Sensible Solutions” or “Smart Spots”. These front-of-package symbols are usually about what the product doesn’t have (as in too much sodium, fat or sugar). So what if a sensible solution gets a low nutrition score?

    In full disclosure: Wegmans brand already has a “wellness key” front panel icon system to point out product health benefits (like whole grains, low sodium, high fiber). The wellness keys get rave reviews from consumers – mostly for the ingredient content claims like gluten free, vegan and lactose free. We would not change to another system without good reason.

    Our concern has been that scoring programs might confuse people more than they help. As one nutrition academic told us “It’s a slippery slope.” For now, we’ll continue to push the “eat well. live well.” principles to help folks move toward healthier better lives. Let us know what you think! We’ll keep you posted on any change in plans.”

    Have a great day.


    Consumer Services Specialist

    • tinako said

      Dear Martha,

      Your article did respond to my comment and said you don’t plan to implement a program like this. Thank you. But the reasoning doesn’t seem to compute. I just want to make sure I understand the reply:

      Para1: You say nutrition is complicated for consumers and they try to look for bad stuff in food. Nutrition scoring systems try to simplify this for customers. Wegmans has no plan to do this, but may in the future.

      Para2: There are different scoring systems which may rate the same food differently. Some national brands self-rate their products.

      Para3: Wegmans labels its own brand and customers particularly like the ingredients highlights [I use them myself, thank you].

      Para4: We think customers will be more confused than helped by a program. It’s a slippery slope!

      This line of reasoning does not seem to lead to Para4. As you say, customers are already confused. They wonder, “Does adding fiber or spraying vitamins on a cereal that’s half sugar make it a good choice?” National brands have hijacked this confusion with their self-ratings which promote the good things they have added while not mentioning the bad. Of course they are not going to rate a cereal “not so great – eat less.” So they put “now with whole grains!” and “great source of vitamins and minerals!” Is that nutritional advice meant to help consumers, or is it advertising meant to falsely imply that it’s a healthy product?

      The fact that there are different scoring systems to choose from can reflect either differing objectives (industry vs. public health) or the difficulty of narrowing “what we should eat” down to a score. That doesn’t mean that an informed and unbiased attempt isn’t valuable, and that there aren’t better and worse scoring systems, and that a choice could not be made, and a reasonable program settled on. Like other stores have done.

      Why would a sensible solution get a low nutrition score? Did you mean what happens if a food labeled “Sensible Solution” by the manufacturer turns out to calculate a low score? Well, if it really is healthy you take a look at the scoring system and see if it needs to be tweaked. If the product isn’t healthy despite manufacturing claims, you will have helped your customer sidestep misleading packaging.

      And I’m not sure what’s a slippery slope. If you mean it is difficult to draw a line between foods that range on a continuing slope of health, the point of such a score is not to obsess over the difference between apples and oranges, as you rightfully point out, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help customers choose between orange juice and orange soda.

      The program I mentioned, Guiding Stars, did change purchasing habits at Hannaford so that sales figures for sugary and non-sugary cereals swapped with no loss of sales to the store. How great is that? There are big differences between these cereals, and those were enormous sales (and therefore health) changes. Again, I’m basing my appeal to you not only on Mr. Wegman’s reported statement that he is committed to improving the health of his customers, but also that this program can help bring your store to the forefront of customer service and the healthy eating movement. From what else I see in your store, that’s clearly where you intend to be.

      I thank you for your attention.

  2. tinako said

    Pertinent quote from Food Politics by Marion Nestle, p. 389

    “Most major food companies have established their own criteria for nutritional evaluation of their own products… The companies’ criteria allow many products high in sugars, fat, and calories to qualify. In 2006, Hannaford, a supermarket chain in the Northeast, recruited a group of independent nutrition scientists to develop a Guiding Stars program to award one, two, or three stars to food products based on independently determined nutritional standards. By these independent criteria, less than 25% of the store’s 27,000 products, and virtually none of the food companies’ self-endorsed products, qualified for even one star.”

    Her source:
    Food Politics:

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