Health is in the 'Guiding Stars'Jeb Wallace-Brodeur/Times Argus
Guiding Stars nutritional tags mark cereal selections, right, as Adam Boyce of Williamstown reads the label on a box at Hannaford market in South Barre on Wednesday.
Making healthy choices in the grocery store just got a lot easier — and a bit more fun, too — with a new program called Guiding Stars.
Instead of a meltdown in the cereal aisle when a parent tries to persuade his or her six-year-old to try Wheaties instead of Oreo O's, picture what Melissa Roberge does: "I send my kids down the cereal aisle and I tell them they can pick out anything that has at least one star."
Roberge, a mother of two, is the store manager of the local Hannaford store in South Barre which, like its 157 sister-stores across northern New England, Massachusetts and New York, is now sporting little green tags on the shelf just below the product with one, two or three stars on healthier food products to denote whether that product is nutritionally "good," "better" or "best." Many foods bear no star tag at all, meaning either that the item didn't qualify for a single star, or that it was not rated.
In the Guiding Stars nutritional program, a patent-pending credit and debit system, foods were evaluated scientifically and credited for the presence of vitamins, minerals, fiber and whole grains, all keys to a healthy diet. Each food was also debited for the presence of the bad stuff: trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, added sugars and added sodium.
Hannaford Bros. Co., a Scarborough, Maine-based grocery store chain, hired a scientific advisory panel which includes physicians, nutrition scientists and public health experts from several leading universities including Harvard, Tufts and the University of North Carolina.
The scientists developed an algorithm, based on the dietary guidelines of the World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other agencies, which is used to analyze the nutritional content found per 100 calories of each food item. For packaged foods, which are required to have ingredients listed alongside a Nutrition Facts panel, the same data used to determine a product's star rating is available to the consumer, though few shoppers take the time to check each product's label to compare nutritional value, or even know what to look for.
Wherever the FDA doesn't require a Nutrition Facts panel, such as for meats, seafood and fresh fruits and vegetables, the scientists used the USDA Nutrient Database to determine the nutritional profiles and to award stars.
Using a 100-calorie sample evens the playing field between different manufacturers who use varying serving sizes on their packaging, which can lead to confusion for consumers trying to compare similar products without the stars program.
"I wish the whole food supply in our country had this and that it was in every store," said Lisa Sutherland, Ph.D., one of the two scientists who developed the system, and a new assistant professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, N.H. "Hannaford took some risk by taking this on. Taking on added sugar was a risk for them, but they listened to us as scientists and they took it on.
"This (program) is what we've been telling our clients as dieticians for years: Eat fruits and vegetables, buy lean cuts of meat and low-fat dairy products, avoid processed foods, or limit the use of them," said Sutherland. It's nothing new, but it's hard to change habits. The science behind it is fairly complex. What the consumer sees is fairly simple."
Just 22 percent of the 27,000 items tested earned one or more star. The Guiding Stars program is "based in science. A company can't buy a star; it's what's in the product," said Roberge.
The idea, according to Roberge, is to save consumers the time that carefully comparing labels takes, and provide a simple, visual cue to foods which offer healthy alternatives. "We're not trying to drive sales by the stars. Our consumers are smart people and we're just trying to make it easier to decipher through the information that is not based in science. People don't want to spend all day in the grocery store."
According to Hannaford Corporate Spokesperson Caren Epstein, the idea is decidedly not to dissuade consumers from buying the other 78 percent of foods which fill Hannaford's shelves, nor to alienate the makers of those bread-and-butter foods. "We told the vendors from the get-go, we're not going to market or give preferential shelf space to products with stars. We will continue to use the same criteria we always have to determine product placement: Sales."
Sales and marketing, that is. Epstein did concede that companies do pay grocery stores to shelve their products in the most prominent positions on the shelves. She could not provide a breakdown of how much influence marketing has on product placement, but she stressed that it was small compared to how well the product sells.
Though her company has not yet analyzed sales figures since the introduction of the Guiding Stars program, Epstein said that "anecdotally the store managers are seeing a significant increase of sales of cereals with stars," as an example.
That means if consumers' buying choices are influenced by stars, and products with stars start flying off the shelves, they will be awarded more prominent positions on the shelves, said Roberge.
Epstein also hopes that manufacturers will start to offer healthier products, and points out that some companies have already been responding to consumer demand for lower-sodium soups, for example.
Perhaps, too, the program will be expanded to the other grocery store chains owned by Hannaford's parent company, Delhaize, based in Belgium. Delhaize owns more than 1,500 stores on the East Coast under the Food Lion, Sweetbay, Kash n' Karry, Bloom, Harveys and Hannaford names.
Nicole LeBeau, spokesperson for Sweetbay, based in Tampa, Fla., confirmed that her company is in conversation with Hannaford, finding out the details of the program. LeBeau is hopeful that her stores could incorporate the program. "It sounds great. All of (Hannaford's) research shows that customers are wanting this kind of thing."
The Guiding Stars program didn't rate baby food because the nutritional requirements of an infant of five months are so different than those of a child of 18 months.
"There isn't a scientific system to use for children under two like there is for adults and children over two," said Sutherland, who earned her Ph.D. in nutrition at the University of North Carolina. Sutherland did add that the healthiest option for young children eating solid foods is to puree vegetables and fruits without adding any salt or sugar.
Bottled water, coffee, tea and dried spices are not rated because they are not significant sources of nutrients. Alcoholic beverages are not rated because they are not included in the health organizations' dietary guidelines.
Oils and fats are not yet rated. Sutherland says that the panel struggled with oils because, under the current FDA labeling regulations, manufacturers are only required to list the amount of unsaturated and saturated fat in their product, not break out the type of saturated fat. As a result, Crisco and olive oil would have the same profile. "We feel there are better oils if you're choosing an oil," said Sutherland, who is currently working out a system for awarding stars to the healthier choices in the oil aisle.
So, you think you've got the gist? Here's a quiz:
Compare the four groups of food listed below. Identify which group, A, B, C or D, is comprised of all three-star products, which is all two-star products, which is all one-star products, and which group earned no stars at all. You'll find the answers at the end of this article.
Group A: Special K cereal; Perdue ground chicken; Healthy Choice garden vegetable soup; Cabot nonfat blueberry yogurt.
Group B: Skin-on split chicken breast; Avocado; Egg Creations Original (a liquid egg product); Homa dried apricots.
Group C: Wonder Bread's 'White Bread Fans'; Frosted Mini-Wheats; Haddock fillet; Orville Redenbacher's Smart Pop Microwave Kettle Korn.
Group D: Lay's Classic potato chips, Kraft Super Mac & Cheese; Silk Enhanced Soymilk; Quaker instant oatmeal, apple and cinnamon; bone-in center-cut pork chop.
With 100 percent of fresh produce earning stars, and only 22 percent of foods store-wide earning any stars at all, that leaves a lot of aisles full of foods that aren't particularly well-balanced sources of nutrition. And we're not just talking about the junk food aisle.
Common sense tells us that most of the sugar-pumped cereals marketed towards kids are not the stuff of a sensible meal, and a trip down the aisle confirms that most of the kids' cereals bear no stars. But there are several choices that earn at least one star, including: Cheerios and Wheaties (two stars each) and Neopets Islandberry Crunch (one star).
The real surprises in the cereal aisle come with some of the cereals which are marketed to adults as healthy, but which are often too high in added sugars and sodium and too low in nutritional density to qualify for stars.
Kellogg's Special K, for example, earned no stars. It is loaded with 220 mg of sodium and 4 grams of sugars per the manufacturers suggested serving, while providing less than 1 gram of dietary fiber. This popular product, which conjures images of a slim woman in a white bathing suit, is shelved prominently on two shelves at eye-level and hand-level.
Kellogg's Smart Start Healthy Heart cereal line, which consumers might expect to earn three stars apiece, earned only one star each for its Original and Maple Brown Sugar products, and no stars at all for its Smart Start Antioxidants product, which was probably disqualified for its very high sodium and relatively low fiber content.
Look to the very bottom shelf for Special K's three-star Protein Plus product. Many of the healthier cereals are shelved very high or very low on the shelves, and others are found in the Nature's Place section of the store, where the percentage of stars is somewhat higher than the rest of the store.
Over in aisle four, only 12 percent of prepared soups got at least one star. The reason, says Epstein, Hannaford's corporate spokesperson, is added sodium. Interestingly, within the last week, Epstein says Campbell's has come out with a low-sodium line. Though she didn't yet know what the new soups' ratings would be, she did say that before any new food product makes it to the Hannaford's warehouse or store shelves, it will have been rated in the star program.
In an aisle with few stars in sight, Lay's Classic potato chips – yes, the fried ones – surprisingly earned a star. "They have no trans fat and no saturated fat. They've got nice Vitamin C, Vitamin A and potassium, and they're not loaded in sodium," said Sutherland, who points out that popping your own popcorn is an even better option. Assuming you don't load it with butter and salt.
A different kind of surprise is found in the yogurt section of the store, which sports fewer stars than you might expect. Fat-free plain yogurts do earn three stars, but most yogurts are sold with fruit in them, and with the fruit come a lot of added sugars, pushing even most of the fat-free products out of the running for even one star.
Sutherland also pointed out that the presence of live active cultures did not help yogurt products earn stars because there is no standard for whether live cultures are good for health, and if so, in what amount.
"At the end of day if we (the advisory panel) didn't feel we could back it with science, we dropped it. It took us two years (to develop the algorithm}. It's never going to be perfect, but it's based in pretty solid science, and we will continue to monitor it as the science develops, we'll tweak it and add new factors."
Whether food items with stars will start flying off the shelves faster has yet to be seen. The program, which was launched at the beginning of September, will be evaluated "in about six more weeks," according to Sutherland, to see what impact it is having on consumers' buying habits.
Anecdotally, it seems to be having an effect. Recently in the South Barre store's in-store bakery, which only offers two products earning stars, one was sold out (Joseph's Flax, Oat Bran and Whole Wheat Flour Tortillas, one star), and there were only a couple loaves left of Hannaford's one-star organic semolina sesame bread.
On that same day, the only brand of egg substitute product which earned any stars at all (Egg Creations) was completely sold out of both products (the three-star original and one-star garden vegetable variety).
Eggs Creation original "does very well on trans fat and cholesterol, and it has a great nutrient profile on all the things we'd like consumers to limit. It has nice vitamins and minerals," said Sutherland, who explained that another product, All Whites, a 100 percent egg whites product endorsed by the American Heart Association, has "no nutritional density" and thus earned no stars.
Indeed, the All Whites label does not list it as being a significant source of any vitamins or minerals, though egg whites are considered to be a good source of Vitamin B and other nutrients. All Whites may not have fared as well as its competitor in part because of the manufacturer's choice in what they included in the Nutrition Facts panel. "If the information is not on the label, there's no way for us to procure the information."
Melissa Sherman drives 30 minutes from Braintree to do her shopping at Hannaford in South Barre, where she says she finds better prices than at the Shaw's in Randolph. Prior to our interview, she had not yet noticed the Guiding Stars program, but the day after her shopping trip she said, "I found the stars very helpful. It takes a lot of time to compare ingredients otherwise."
"I preach to my grandkids … probably more than they want me to," said Sherman, who explained that for snacks she offers her 15 grandchildren, ages two to 22, fresh fruit and raisins.
"I'm the mean old Grammy," said Sherman, who buys few prepared foods, choosing instead to make her own soups, for instance. She admits it's hard to get some of her grandchildren to eat what she offers. "I see a lot of health problems like obesity and cancers that might be related to poor diets, especially in the generation below me, people in their 40s are having a lot of health problems. And also with kids, obesity is getting to be a problem."
Sherman passed over some of the products she usually bought, such as some canned fruits and dry pastas, because they didn't score high on the star rating. On other products, she ignored the stars in favor of a lower-priced alternative.
"I have more time to shop because I'm older. This is an excellent program, especially for young people who need to rush in and rush out."
The quiz offered earlier in this article offers a few surprises. None of the Group A foods, which included Healthy Choice Garden Vegetable Soup, earned stars. Group B was the three-star group, which included skin-on split chicken breast. Group C foods earned two stars, including Wonder Bread's White Bread Fans (along with several other Wonder Bread products); and Group D were the one-star foods, including the soymilk which is enhanced with vitamins, but also has added sugars.MORE IN NewsPORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Sen. Full Story
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