Nutrition ratings: Helpful or confusing?

A little over a year ago, Hannaford Supermarkets rolled out the “Guiding Stars” program, which was designed to help us shoppers make better and healthier choices as we shopped down their store's aisles. The program awards one, two or three stars representing “good”, “better” or “best” in terms of nutritional value.

The program seems to be working. Sales in the first year of Guiding Stars found that leaner beef sales increased while fattier beef sales declined. Whole-milk sales are down, fat-free milk sales are up. Some of the greatest improvements were seen in grocery items like cereal, bakery, canned products and snack foods. These, on average, grew at 2.5 times the rate of those with no stars. The breakfast cereals with Stars increased 3.5 times more than no-Star cereals. A little over 25 percent of the products on Hannaford’s shelves carry at least one star.

So why don’t I like the program?
It’s not about the concept; it may well be a good idea. (Although for bulletproof acceptance by both shoppers and food brands, Hannaford needs to make public the criteria they actually use to award the stars.) It’s more about adding confusion to our shopping trip.

Last week another nutritional guidance system, called the “Overall Nutritional Quality Index” (ONQI), which is headed by Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, was unveiled with the system’s creators saying that it was the best option to bring conformity and credibility to the nation’s nutrition labeling system. Their ratings are based on a 0 to 100 score. But again, their criteria (or as we say in 2007, their algorithm) isn’t made public. What they have said is, “approximately 30 nutrients, both those with favorable health effects such as fiber, and those with unfavorable health effects such as added sugar, are included in the sophisticated ONQI formula, which also includes a variety of weighting coefficients that reflect the importance of various nutrients to health, and their associations with specific health outcomes.”

The confusion comes in as we shoppers are faced with different ratings, and I’m sure we will see at least a couple more make their way onto shelves, which use different criteria and different symbols. So how do you compare a three-star rating with a score of 93? Which is better? Therein lies the problem.

While you may realize I am not a huge supporter of the FDA’s efforts these days, I have little doubt that the only way that such programs will benefit us (versus benefiting only the stores or brands that tout them) is to have the algorithm and criteria made public. And to create a consistent rating system, we need to have a coalition of government and trade groups sitting in the same room alongside consumer groups where together they come to an agreement on the criteria and make it a universal system. Otherwise, these programs just become more labels that add more confusion for the consumer.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .