Guiding Stars make nutritious food shopping elementary

Guiding Stars makes nutrition as simple as 1-2-3
Guiding Stars makes nutrition as simple as 1-2-3

One of the most frustrating facets of weight loss is knowing what to eat. Whenever I am asked “how do I get six pack abs?” my response is always the same question, “what do you eat?” One can spend hours at the supermarket reading Nutrition Facts labels and still not take home the foods that will serve to achieve any effective diet and weight loss intentions.

Guiding Stars was created to help us make more nutritious choices when it comes to supermarket shopping. The program distinguishes itself by rating foods on a scale of one to three. Simply put, foods with one star have good nutritional value; foods with two stars have better nutritional value and foods with three stars have the best nutritional value. The program is the first ever storewide navigation supermarket program.

Recently, I sat down with Dr. Lisa Sutherland from the Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel to talk more about Guiding Stars and how it helps consumers make nutritious choices easy, practical and fun.

Stefan Pinto: Was Guiding Stars born primarily from the confusion deciphering the Nutrition Facts labeling lingo?

Dr. Lisa Sutherland: Guiding Stars analyzes nutrient data obtained from the Nutrition Facts panel found on food labels, and the USDA’s National Nutrient Database to help consumers easily locate products with the most nutrition for the calories, eliminating the need to compare every item in the store.

However, shoppers are encouraged to use Guiding Stars in addition to the nutrition facts panel and ingredient lists to help them select the best products for themselves or their families.

The Guiding Stars Licensing Co. was formed in early 2008 to create opportunities for supermarkets, manufacturers, food service providers and other organizations to make nutritious shopping simple throughout the United States. Guiding Stars currently has over two years of in-market experience. To date, Guiding Stars has been implemented in more than 1,400 stores and has recently expanded into school food service systems.

SP: What is the Guiding Stars’ 100-calories, nutrient dense ratings criteria?

LS: Guiding Stars utilizes an evidence-based proprietary algorithm that is grounded in the most current dietary guidelines and recommendations of leading national and international health organizations, such as the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Department of Agriculture, the US Health & Human Services, the National Academy of Sciences, and the World Health Organization.

The algorithm analyzes nutrient data obtained from the Nutrition Facts panel found on food labels and the USDA’s National Nutrient Database. The Guiding Stars algorithm rates a product’s nutrient density per 100 calories, which allows for consistent measurement regardless of package and serving size variations.

Products with Guiding Stars have more vitamins, minerals, fiber and whole grains and less saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sodium and added sugars. The more nutritional value a food has, the more Guiding Stars it receives on a scale of zero to three.

SP: Do individual manufacturers have to subscribe to the program to get a Guiding Stars rating or is it an independent counsel assigned to a participating supermarket?

Guiding Stars Shelf Tag
Guiding Stars Shelf Tag

LS: The Guiding Stars system rates all edible products storewide regardless of price, brand or manufacturer and therefore Guiding Stars Licensing Company does not partner with individual manufacturers to execute the program.

The Guiding Stars system is based on an extensive, proprietary database that rates and indexes over 60,000 edible products including not only packaged foods but also fresh foods, produce and prepared meals.

SP: At what point do the Guiding Stars rating get assigned to foods? Does it happen at the supermarket at the time of stocking?

LS: Food product data is audited regularly and can be updated instantaneously as products are reformulated and new products are introduced. Typically, any new food product receives a star rating before being stocked on store shelves.

SP: As the Guiding Stars rating system consists of “good,” “better” and “best” and there is no “poor” rating, is it therefore an unfair assumption that foods with no Guiding Stars rating to be considered simply not good for you?

LS: A product with no visible star means that, although the product has been rated, it did not meet the nutrition criteria to merit a Guiding Star.

The only products that are not rated are alcoholic beverages and those products that contain less than five calories per serving (and therefore are not a major source of calories or other nutrients) — bottled water, dried spices, coffees and teas.

SP: Would it then be beneficial, health wise, to purchase only foods with a Guiding Stars rating?

LS: The purpose of Guiding Stars is not to tell consumers what to buy, but to help them make more nutritious choices for themselves and their families by highlighting foods with higher nutrition density, rather than “policing” less nutritious food options.

Guiding Stars supports the notion that consumers should feel free to choose any food products they’d like based on individual preference, dietary need, or purchase occasion.

Guiding Stars is not designed to be a weight loss tool, but instead help consumers to choose foods that offer the most nutrition for the calories.

Portion control is also an important consideration and component of a healthy lifestyle and therefore it is important to consider serving size information when eating and preparing any food, with or without Guiding Stars.

SP: Do you think manufacturers will begin to print their Guiding Stars rating on the packaging, in the same way they do with Good Housekeeping Promises?

LS: Guiding Stars is already beginning to appear on private label product packaging and we envision the day when Guiding Stars will begin to appear on national brand packaging as well.

SP: Speaking of packaging, under certain circumstances, Guiding Stars specifically takes packaging into account when evaluating the fats and oils food group. Could you elaborate on this?

LS: Fats and oils are inherently different from most other foods in that they are made up of a single macronutrient – namely fats – rather than a combination of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and often do not contain any other added ingredients. Moreover, important micronutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, must be considered in order to discriminate more nutritious fats and oils from less nutritious choices.

Given that the Guiding Stars program criteria developed by the Scientific Advisory Panel did not include some of these micronutrients, the panel felt that another algorithm was needed in order to rate fats and oils in a nutritionally meaningful way. Fats and oils are evaluated using data obtained from and the USDA’s National Nutrient Database.

SP: Do whole grain, high in omega-3 fatty acids and other adaptogens automatically get a coveted 3-star, “best” Guiding Stars rating?

LS: No, no food automatically qualifies. Every food item is evaluated and rated using the Guiding Stars proprietary algorithm which ties back to the credits outweighing the debits. If a food is high in a nutrient that the algorithm criteria suggests people limit in their diet (such as added sugar and sodium), this can outweigh the item’s positive attributes.

The Guiding Stars algorithm credits a food’s score for the presence of vitamins, minerals, fiber and/or whole grains and debits a food’s score for the presence of trans and/or saturated fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and added sodium.

Important micronutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, must be considered in order to discriminate more nutritious fats and oils from less nutritious choices. Given that the Guiding Stars program criteria developed by the Scientific Advisory Panel did not include some of these micronutrients, the panel felt that another algorithm was needed in order to rate fats and oils in a nutritionally meaningful way.

SP: Pre-packaged “diet foods” are typically higher in sodium and preservatives, how do they fare in the Guiding Stars system? Are they rated?

LS: Guiding Stars rates all edible items in the grocery store by analyzing nutrient data obtained from the Nutrition Facts panel found on food labels and the USDA’s National Nutrient Database.

Across the board, products with Guiding Stars have more vitamins, minerals, fiber and whole grains and less saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sodium and added sugars.

Differences in both the positive attributes (vitamins, minerals, fiber, whole grain) and negative attributes (cholesterol, trans fat, sugar and sodium) affect the star rating received.

SP: Could you explain why there is no differentiation between how organic vs. conventionally manufactured foods are rated with Guiding Stars?

LS: Thus far, there is no convincing scientific evidence to show that organic foods are more nutritious than foods that are conventionally grown. If such evidence emerges, this will be evaluated by the Scientific Advisory Panel and changes to the algorithm will be considered, as appropriate.

Guiding Stars analyzes nutrient data obtained from the FDA’s Nutrition Facts label and the USDA’s National Nutrient Database and reflects the most current nutritional guidelines. Neither of these sources recognizes any nutritional differences between foods that are conventionally, naturally and/or organically grown. Similarly, the Guiding Stars system makes no such distinction.

SP: Do you think Guiding Stars is an opportunity for candy or soda manufacturers to launch a new, sugar substitute variety, perhaps sweetened with Stevia, to get a (higher) Guiding Stars rating?

LS: When any new product is introduced, Guiding Stars analyzes nutrient data obtained from the Nutrition Facts panel found on food labels, and the USDA’s National Nutrient Database, and credit a food’s score for the presence of vitamins, minerals, fiber and/or whole grains and debit a food’s score for the presence of trans and/or saturated fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and added sodium.

It has been evidenced that some food manufacturers have reformulated products to improve a product’s nutritional profile such that it meets the criteria for a star rating.

SP: Are there plans for a mobile (cell phone) application of Guiding Stars Meal Planner (download the Guiding Stars Meal Planner) or perhaps a searchable database of Guiding Stars foods?

LS: Guiding Stars Licensing Company would like to make the Guiding Stars nutrition rating system and meal planner accessible to everyone and are continually looking at looking at ways for greater consumer interaction.

Yes, we are looking at mobile devices. We are also open to partnering with other iPhone applications to incorporate the Guiding Stars rating system/database into their applications.

The Guiding Stars program is currently in more than 1,400 supermarkets along the East Coast including: 1,177 Food Lion Stores in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic, 167 Hannaford locations in the Northeast and 108 Sweetbay stores in central and western Florida. Any supermarket, school, restaurant or dining facility can use the Guiding Stars program via the Guiding Stars Licensing Company. For additional information please fill out the partner inquiry form.

Has your local supermarket chain implemented Guiding Stars? How has Guiding Stars influenced your buying and food shopping habits? Please post a comment below.