What does the Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel do anyway?

When sitting down to start this post, I figured it would make sense to reference the fact that I’m one of the “newbies” on the Guiding Stars team—and I joined in the summer of 2012 (I just checked). Eight years of working with these smart and talented folks has passed by so quickly! And boy, has the food landscape changed during the past 8 years—not to mention how much has changed since Guiding Stars was created in 2006. (You can read about the major nutrition trends that Guiding Stars survived in its first 10 years here.)

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that there is a dedicated, highly skilled team of scientists and experts behind the Guiding Stars algorithm. Known as the Scientific Advisory Panel, or SAP for short, this group is at the heart of keeping the Guiding Stars algorithm current, relevant, and science-based. So, what does the SAP actually do? Good question! Here is a little peek into the workings of the SAP…

Job 1: Creating the Guiding Stars algorithms

Coming up with the algorithms by which the nutritional content of foods is evaluated and foods are assigned points and star ratings was no easy feat! Prior to their development, lots of consumer research was conducted to see exactly what the consumer “pain points” were regarding shopping for healthy food. The idea was to create a set of algorithms that could be used not only for a variety of different food categories, but which could also be flexible in order to reflect changing nutrition advice. That process took foresight and creative thinking, for sure.

In fact, the Guiding Stars program and algorithms hold patents in both the US and Canada. The program has also stood the test of time, as other food rating systems have come and gone since Guiding Stars came on the scene. One of the unique aspects of the algorithms and the Guiding Stars program is that it’s a transparent system. The original creation process was documented in a scientific paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010. Check it out if you’re interested in more specific about the process and how foods are rated.

How does the SAP handle algorithm updates?

While one of the original algorithm creators remains highly involved as an active member of the SAP (shout-out to Leslie Fischer!), the panel was assembled not to create the algorithm, but to guide the program and its use. Updating the algorithm in order to stay current with nutritional science and health recommendations is the primary job of the SAP. Basically, that process looks like this:

Someone brings a product rating question to the table.

Questions about a food’s star rating come from several places. A customer might notice something while shopping. One of the Guiding Stars’ team members who do the tedious “behind the scenes” work might be looking at a brand new food product. An SAP member might bring something new to the group. Regardless of where it comes from, questions about how certain food ingredients are handled by the algorithm, or how points and stars are assigned to products, are always examined. Sometimes there is a quick adjustment that can be made. Other times, it can take the SAP months to hammer out the details.

It’s time for science.

On SAP conference calls, every member has a chance to bring up scientific points related to the question at hand. In preparation for the calls, members gather research and information that might be relevant to the conversation. Scientific consensus is the basis of the algorithms. In addition, because the SAP members all bring their own areas of expertise to the calls, there is also an opportunity for members to add aspects of experience and context to the conversations.

Is there a public health recommendation related to this?

In addition to the scientific basis, Guiding Stars uses public health recommendations, such as those from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Health Canada, and the World Health Organization. Using these organizations’ published recommendations helps Guiding Stars stay relevant for consumers. It also makes it easier for people to implement the food and nutrition suggestions at the shopping level.

A change may be recommended.

In 2018,  we changed a few things in the Guiding Stars algorithm. For example, a growing amount of scientific data on omega-3 fatty acid benefits led us to credit foods for containing them. Sometimes, after much discussion and deliberation, the SAP takes a “wait and see” approach. This means that we will keep monitoring the science and recommendations and revisit it when more information is available.

What’s the impact?

Looking at how proposed algorithm changes impact the star ratings of foods is always part of any algorithm change. Basically, the data team does a trial run of the change and we check out the results. It helps identify any “outlier” products that we failed to consider. It provides an indication of both how sweeping the change will be (will it impact a lot of foods) and how discriminating the change will be.

What does this mean for you?

The next time you see those little stars on your favorite foods, you can be confident that those weren’t just put on there in an arbitrary fashion! The Guiding Stars rating system helps you make the most nutritious choices. We take that commitment very seriously.  If you don’t have time to read the information on the Nutrition Facts labels, you can follow the stars.