Guiding Stars is an objective, evidence-based, nutrition guidance program. The system rates foods as good, better, and best to give consumers at-a-glance advice: the more stars a food earns, the more nutritious it is. The Guiding Stars algorithm includes only nutrients that have been researched to the extent that a scientific consensus has been reached and for which the knowledge has been translated into USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans or nutrition policy at either the national or international level.
What criteria are considered for assigning stars to individual foods?
The Guiding Stars algorithm evaluates products using a variety of nutrients found on the Nutrition Facts label and ingredient list. For foods that are not labeled, such as meats, fruits, seafood, and vegetables, the program uses information obtained from the USDA’s National Nutrient Database (SR-28). Foods that earn stars contain higher amounts of vitamins and minerals, dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, and whole grains and lower amounts of saturated fat, added sugars, added sodium, trans fat, artificial colors, and sugar alcohols.
Are the Guiding Stars criteria the same for all foods in the store?
Most foods are rated with the general algorithm. However, meats, poultry, seafood, dairy and nuts are naturally higher in fats and, with the exception of nuts, do not contain dietary fiber. Hence a separate algorithm which recognizes these natural differences is used to evaluate these food categories. There is also a different algorithm for fats and oils and a separate algorithm for baby and toddler foods. Finally, there is a different algorithm for beverages.
If a food product does not have a Star, is it a bad food?
Guiding Stars does not rank foods as “good” or “bad.” Simply stated, foods with stars deliver more nutrients per calorie or more “bang for your buck”. Eating more nutrient-dense foods is important for almost everyone, especially for individuals limiting calories to control weight.
If the product or shelf tag has no stars, it simply means one of the following:
- The food item does not meet the nutritional criteria to receive a Guiding Star.
- The food item has five calories or less per serving.
- The food item has not yet been evaluated. The GS team needs to capture the product data and complete the evaluation process for this item.
- The item is a baby formula, alcohol, dietary supplement and/or medical food, all of which are not rated by the Guiding Stars program.
Do three starred products cost more?
Guiding Stars is a completely independent assessment of the nutritional quality of foods and beverages. Guiding Stars is not influenced by price, brand or manufacturer and the star rating does not influence pricing at retail clients.
Why are there so few stars in the prepared foods and deli sections of the store?
The deli and prepared foods categories typically have higher added sodium and/or added sugar content, which results in fewer of these products receiving stars.
Why do so few yogurts earn stars?
While some yogurts are healthful choices, many yogurts are very high in added sugars and include artificial colors. The Guiding Stars uses the most recent scientific consensus to inform its algorithm and therefore debits are given to foods with excessive added sugar and foods that contain artificial colors as these attributes should be limited for health.
How do regular versions sometimes earn more stars than low-fat or diet versions of a food?
Although the algorithm debits for saturated fat and trans fat, it does not debit for total fat so this can explain why some full fat products receive stars. Although the total fat is high, it is mainly heart-healthy unsaturated fat. In some cases, a product’s low fat counterpart may receive fewer stars because manufacturers may add sugar or salt for taste in the ‘low fat’ version. In keeping with current evidence, Guiding Stars evaluates fat quality rather than fat quantity.
How is it possible for frozen fruits and vegetables to receive just as many stars as fresh?
In most cases, frozen produce is flash frozen immediately after harvesting (which preserves the nutrients) and is just as nutritious as its fresh counterpart. Frozen fruits and vegetables typically also have no added ingredients such as preservatives. Starred frozen fruits and vegetables that have little or no added sugars or sodium are nearly identical to the fresh varieties.
Does buying only starred foods guarantee a healthy diet?
No, but buying and eating nutrient-dense foods is a great start for a healthy lifestyle. Other factors including portion size, food preparation techniques, variety, balance, fitness, weight and health status all help to define an individual’s healthy diet.
What if I still have questions regarding a product’s rating?
We encourage consumers to speak with an in-store dietitian, visit our website or contact us directly. A Registered Dietitian is a trained health professional who can help make sense of food and nutrition. Consumers can also visit staging.guidingstars.com to learn more about the program and product ratings. Specific questions may be addressed to the Guiding Stars Team through the form on the website or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This program is based on calories. Why aren’t serving sizes consistent with the Nutrition Facts label?
As serving sizes vary greatly we set up a standardized evaluation unit of 100 calories. This reference measure helps to keep the playing field level and makes it possible to compare foods within all categories, avoiding the confusion of the variable serving sizes.
Does the program count vitamins that are naturally occurring differently from those that are added by fortification?
Since the program is based on the Nutrition Facts label, it is impossible to determine the source of all the vitamins and minerals. However, to “control” for foods that are enriched or heavily fortified, it only credits a product’s score for a maximum of two vitamins and minerals.
Why do sugary cereals (Cookie Crisp, for example) still receive stars?
Many cereals now include whole grains, higher fiber and are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Those that have these nutrients and limit added sugar and salt will often earn one or more Guiding Stars. The cereal aisle offers lots of choices, and while roughly 65% of cereals earn stars, there are still plenty of no-star items with very high sugar levels.
Why do grapes and pretzels get the same Guiding Stars rating?
Grapes and some varieties of pretzels earn 2 stars since they are rated using the same set of criteria, and can acquire stars for containing more vitamins and minerals, dietary fiber, whole grains, and less trans fatty acids, saturated fat, cholesterol, added sugars and added sodium. General food groups or food categories, such as cereals or soups, for example, have unique combinations of attributes, and the Guiding Stars program facilitates comparisons within the same general group. As you go through each aisle of the grocery store, Guiding Stars can help identify more nutritious options within that food category or group. It is not designed for comparing foods across categories, such as comparing a serving of grapes to a serving of pretzels. The pretzels that earn stars typically have less added sodium and more vitamins, minerals and fiber. There are lots of pretzel varieties that do not qualify for stars, so Guiding Stars makes it easy to identify the more nutritious choices in any category.
What percentages of foods in the store get stars?
Approximately 35% of the analyzed U.S. food products earn one or more stars. The percentages by store section are as follows:
- 100% of fresh fruits and vegetables
- 64% of cereals
- 63% of seafood
- 50% of milks and juices
- 38% of canned goods
- 32% of breads and baked goods
- 27% of meat
- 20% of yogurts
- 14% of soups
How does Guiding Stars ensure that the data and star ratings are accurate?
The Guiding Stars team captures and processes all product data required to complete the rating process. The data is verified through a multi-level quality control process and product photographs are maintained to support research on all ratings. As with any very large database, mistakes are possible. Guiding Stars is committed to correcting any errors as quickly as possible and sending corrected star ratings back to the stores within 1-2 weeks. Because manufacturers are constantly revising formulations and product packaging, Guiding Stars maintains a robust update/audit program to ensure the data is current and any changes to the star ratings are sent back to the stores on a weekly basis.
Questions on the Science
How do you verify the science?
Our algorithm was created by a Scientific Advisory Panel which includes experts in nutrition, biochemistry, and public health. They continue to review the latest nutrition science. When new findings are supported by consensus, as reflected in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the algorithm is reviewed and updated to align with the best current advice for nutrition.
Why doesn’t your algorithm consider things like genetic modification, organic production, natural foods, artificial sweeteners and antioxidants?
If a quality of a food isn’t included in our algorithm, it means that the science does not currently show a meaningful nutritional benefit or drawback for that property and that it is not part of regular labeling practices. As labeling regulations are updated to reflect new scientific consensus, the Guiding Stars algorithm will be updated to reflect the current recommendations.
Why did you include “whole grains” in the formula? They are not nutrients per se and are not included on the Nutrition Facts label.
Whole grains are included because the Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasizes the health benefits of whole grains and recommend that at least half of our grain and cereal servings should be whole grains. Whole grains are identified by using keywords that can be found in the ingredients list in combination with fiber content.
How does Guiding Stars take into account vitamins and minerals that are not included as part of the Nutrition Facts label?
The Guiding Stars ratings are based on the same nutrient information that is available to consumers on the food label. A manufacturer may opt to only list the mandatory nutrients (Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, Potassium), or may opt to list voluntary vitamins and minerals for which the food item is a significant source. Consequently, there are some unavoidable inconsistencies in the ratings. This approach is used in order to provide upmost transparency to the consumer by analyzing only the information that is available to them on the product. When similar products with different information are compared, the ones with less information may receive a lower rating. For products without a food label (i.e., fresh produce), complete nutrition data is obtained from the USDA standard reference database, and thus full information for the vitamin and mineral content of those foods is considered.
Why do you separate credits for omega-3 fatty acids and EPA & DHA?
Foods with omega-3 fatty acids, EPA & DHA are given credit as these nutrients have been shown to confer many health benefits. Omega-3 fats include the polyunsaturated fats alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) as well as EPA and DHA. Current dietary recommendations for omega-3 fatty acids in the U.S. are based on ALA. However, since there are also unique health benefits documented for EPA and DHA, an additional bonus point is provided for the presence of these fatty acids in foods.
Artificial colors are not included in any national nutrition policies in the United States so why does Guiding Stars debit for artificial colors?
The Guiding Stars scientific advisory panel has a mandate to remain up to date on research and to recommend algorithm changes when there is overwhelming evidence that informs scientific consensus on a food attribute. Artificial colors, while not included in the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans have been widely researched and shown to exacerbate negative behaviors such as hyperactivity and inattentiveness in some children. Due to these findings, in Europe foods containing artificial colors must display a warning and there is growing pressure for manufacturers both in the US and abroad to replace artificial colors with widely available natural food dyes. In keeping with this scientific consensus the scientific advisory panel decided to include a debit of one star for items containing artificial colors.
Are factors like organic and genetically modified foods considered in the ratings?
No. Currently there is not enough evidence to support an influence of organic or genetically modified on the nutritional quality of foods.
Is protein level taken into consideration in the ratings process?
Protein is not included as an element in the Guiding Stars algorithm for several reasons. Protein is not a focus of the authoritative scientific bodies nor is it included in any of their dietary recommendations (USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, MyPlate, etc.). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans do not include specific recommendations for protein. In the US, people generally over consume this macronutrient and protein deficiency is extremely rare. Additionally, protein is found in negligible or trace amounts in many foods (i.e. produce, sweets). Thus it makes more sense to consider protein as a component of the total diet, rather than as a percentage of individual foods. Finally, there is no long term data on the safety and health effects of increased protein intake as recommended by many recent fad diets.
Do all foods that list ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’ get a debit for trans fat?
Although manufacturers are allowed to round a trans fat content of less than 0.5 g per serving size to zero on the Nutrition Facts label, any foods that list ‘partially hydrogenated’ in the ingredients are debited by 1 point, regardless of the trans fat value found on the Nutrition Facts label.
Questions from Parents
Why isn’t baby formula rated?
Major medical authorities in the United States heavily regulate this group of products, resulting in uniformity across brands. We also recognize that leading pediatric authorities recommend breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life and beyond if mom and child are agreeable. We do not want our rating system to cause confusion.
Why are baby foods rated differently than the other foods in the store?
The Guiding Stars model for babies and toddlers reflects the specific nutritional requirements of children under the age of two. These foods receive credits for dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, and debits for added sodium, added sugars, and sugar alcohols.
Adult foods are debited if they have saturated fat, why not baby foods?
There are no recommended daily fat intakes for children from birth to age two. Children in this age group are in a period of rapid growth and development that is characterized by high nutritional requirements, including fat requirements to support optimal development of their nervous system.
In the dairy section, whole milk does not earn stars, but aren’t young children supposed to drink whole milk?
Milk is rated using recommendations for children over the age of two and adults. For children under the age of two, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfeeding continue to the age of 12 months, and thereafter as long as mutually desired. Babies need fat in their diets for a variety of reasons, including neurological development. Toddlers should drink whole milk from ages 1 to 2 years; then, if their growth is steady, they can be switched to low-fat or skim milk.
Questions on the Beverages Algorithm
What criteria are considered for assigning Stars to individual beverages?
We use a unique set of relevant criteria to evaluate and assign Star ratings to a wide variety of beverages. All beverages are first standardized to a 12-ounce serving size and are credited for providing hydration, based on water as a gold standard. Beverage products then receive additional credits if they contain vitamins/minerals, fiber, and/or live active cultures. Beverages receive debits if they are high in added or natural sugars, added sodium, saturated fat, or additives to limit (artificial colors and flavors, non-nutritive sweeteners, and chemical preservatives). After calculating the initial product score, items that receive no debits whatsoever, contain no additives to limit, no added sodium, and no sweeteners of any kind earn an additional bonus credit.
Are the Guiding Stars criteria the same for all foods and beverages in the store?
The Guiding Stars criteria are not the same for all foods and beverages in the store due to inherent differences in various categories. For example, to evaluate and differentiate fats and oils, nutritional components including omega-3 fatty acid content, monounsaturated fat content, and saturated fat content must be considered. It would not make sense however to look at these components in beverages as most drinks are fat free and do not even contain these nutrients.
The Guiding Stars program now has 5 unique algorithms to evaluate 5 different groups of foods and beverages. We designed a new, unique algorithm to assess and assign Star ratings to all beverages, since the algorithms previously developed for foods were not effectively differentiating the hydration and health properties of beverages. (The food algorithms are based on a 100-kcal serving size, so water—with no calories—could not be evaluated using any of those algorithms.)
If a beverage does not have a Star, is it a bad beverage?
The Guiding Stars program was designed to direct consumers to good, better, and best choices for nutritional value, not to mark items as bad. If a beverage does not have a Star, it simply means that the product does not meet the science-based criteria to earn Guiding Stars. Beverages without Stars are not bad, however products in the store that earn Stars do better provide hydration and other health promoting qualities.
Historically, products with 5 calories or fewer per serving were not eligible for Stars.
What reference measure is used in the new beverage algorithm that allows beverages that do not contain calories, such as water, to earn Stars?
When designing an algorithm to evaluate beverages, it immediately became apparent that a calorie-based model would not work, as water (our gold standard) contains no calories. As beverages are in liquid form, we opted to standardize to a volume amount. We tested several different reference volumes, and ultimately decided to use a 12-ounce serving size, which is the FDA Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC) for most beverages including water, soda, and coffee/tea.
Non-nutritive (low or no-calorie) sweeteners are not included in any national nutrition policies in the United States so why does Guiding Stars debit for non-nutritive sweeteners in the beverage algorithm?
When developing an algorithm for beverages, we began with water as our gold standard. Beverages could receive additional credit if they provided key nutrients in addition to hydration. Additionally, we sought to debit them if they contained unnecessary ingredients that detract from the healthfulness of the product. In general, beverages that contain non-nutritive sweeteners often have other ingredients (i.e. artificial colors or chemical preservatives) with possible negative health effects. Moreover, while non-nutritive sweeteners are considered safe by the FDA, there is a body of scientific evidence showing that they may have an adverse impact on insulin sensitivity and the composition of intestinal microbiota. We chose to be conservative in our approach to steer consumers toward the best beverage choices. For this reason, we opted to debit beverages that contain non-nutritive sweeteners.
Chemical preservatives are not included in any national nutrition policies in the United States so why does Guiding Stars debit beverages containing them?
Although national nutrition policies do not advise against the consumption of chemical preservatives, Guiding Stars opted to include them in our beverage algorithm for several reasons. Beverages containing chemical preservatives tend to be of lower nutritional quality, often contain other ingredients with possible negative health effects, and are not the best choices for consumers—especially when compared to water. There is some scientific evidence that chemical preservatives may exert untoward effects on health; e.g., nitrates and nitrites found in cured meats and potassium bromate in baked goods have been linked to a risk for cancer. Potassium bromate and potassium sorbate are chemical preservatives permitted in the US food supply but banned from foods in the EU and other countries. Consistent with our goal to steer our customers to the best options, we opted to debit beverages that contain this category of chemical additives.
Why does Guiding Stars debit food products for artificial colors and not for other additives to limit (including non-nutritive sweeteners and chemical preservatives) like it does for beverages?
The Guiding Stars food algorithms include a debit for artificial colors because these have been linked to some negative behavioral effects in children. The original algorithms did not initially debit foods for the other chemical additives that are included in the beverage model, as the focus was primarily on nutrients vs. additives. However, the Guiding Stars algorithm is constantly being evaluated and updated to remain as current with nutrition science and policy as possible. We now recognize that these additives to limit are primarily found in ultra-processed foods and are currently considering their inclusion in the food algorithms as a way of addressing degree of processing (and helping encourage the consumption of whole foods).
Why does Guiding Stars credit beverages like kombucha for live active cultures and no credit is given to foods like yogurt?
Credit for the presence of live active cultures in yogurt has been considered within the Guiding Stars program; however, our evaluation and review of many yogurt product labels (which is what the Guiding Stars program relies on for ingredient information) revealed inconsistent labeling practices across brands. What’s more, some manufacturers do not list any cultures on their labels but opt instead to use the National Yogurt Association Live & Active Cultures seal. The Guiding Stars program relies on label information, and the labeling inconsistencies preclude us from gathering accurate information on live active cultures. Therefore, it is not possible for the Guiding Stars algorithms to evaluate yogurts based on their probiotic content. Fortunately, the other credits and debits included in the Guiding Stars algorithm allow us to evaluate the nutritional quality of yogurts without the inclusion of a credit for live active cultures.
When developing the beverage algorithm on the other hand, we felt that the presence of probiotics or live cultures was a significant point of distinction when comparing products. For example, kombuchas being a fermented product inherently must contain live cultures by their very definition. As a kombucha culture is always listed in the ingredients of all such products, we opted to include a credit for this positive aspect of beverages. This credit also captures other drinks with live active cultures such as water kefirs and probiotic drinks.
Is protein level taken into consideration in the rating process?
In general, people in the US over consume protein, and protein deficiency is very rare. For this reason, protein level is not included in any of the Guiding Stars’ algorithms including the beverage algorithm. In addition, protein is not a nutrient found in the vast majority of beverage products. Consumers who are interested in protein are generally advised to consider the protein level of a day’s food intake, or of their entire diet rather than focusing on the percentage of protein in individual foods or drinks.
Why are alcoholic beverages exempt from evaluation?
Beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages are not evaluated in the Guiding Stars program because the general recommendation from health authorities is that consumers avoid or limit their intake of such products. Alcohol itself provides no appreciable nutrients aside from energy (calories) and does not contribute to hydration as it is a diuretic. Moreover, regular consumption of alcoholic beverages can make it difficult to meet nutrient needs while staying within recommended daily calorie limits. Alcoholic beverages are not a component of the USDA Dietary Patterns, and the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans caution that some adults should not drink at all, such as women who are pregnant.
Why are meal replacement beverages exempt from evaluation?
Guiding Stars considers a beverage’s primary purpose to be providing hydration—not to replace a meal. Therefore, by definition, these types of products do not fit within the beverage category. In addition, the Guiding Stars program does not evaluate products that may be considered dietary supplements or medical foods that should be consumed only with a doctor’s knowledge or recommendation. Most meal replacement beverages fall within the categories of supplements or medical foods and so therefore we have made this whole category exempt from evaluation.
Why are milk and milk alternatives not evaluated by the beverage algorithm?
The Guiding Stars program has always evaluated dairy products like milk, kefir, and yogurt smoothies, as well as nut-based milks with the Meat algorithm. The reason is because the nutrient profiles in these products are more closely aligned with those in other high protein-containing foods such as meats, seafood, and nuts. Likewise, other non-nut or seed based milk alternatives (e.g., oat milk and coconut milk) have always been evaluated with the General Foods algorithm because they are nutritionally similar to their source ingredients, which are also evaluated with that model. As such products are not typically intended for hydration, we will continue to use the Meat or General Foods algorithms to most accurately evaluate them.
Why are natural sugars included as a debit in the beverage algorithm?
While there is no doubt that excess intake of added sugars can lead to weight gain and chronic health conditions, too much sugar of any kind can have the same effects. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) does not differentiate between added or naturally occurring sugars and refers to them collectively as free sugars. The WHO recommends that any food or beverage that is very high in free sugars be consumed in moderation. We do recognize that there is a place for 100% fruit juices in a healthy diet. We acknowledge that the natural sugars in 100% fruit juices are accompanied by some nutrients, such as vitamin C, and that they can have health benefits when consumed in moderation. However, some juices, especially juice blends made from various concentrates, have much more sugar than others. In fact, some juices contain as much or even more free sugar than sweetened sodas. Again, we adopted a very rigorous set of criteria to evaluate beverages so that we can steer consumers toward the best beverage choices, namely drinks that provide hydration without an excess of sugar or calories. While most juices still earn Stars with our new algorithm, we want consumers to be able to see that some juices might not be the best choice to drink in large quantities for hydration purposes.
Why is caffeine not included in the evaluation of beverages?
The Guiding Stars Advisory Panel conducted a research analysis of caffeine as part of the beverage algorithm development process. Caffeine naturally occurs in over 60 plants including those used to produce coffee, tea, chocolate, and yerba mate. It is also commonly added to beverages such as sodas and energy drinks. While caffeine use may be contraindicated in sensitive populations such as children and pregnant women, moderate use has been found to be safe and to enhance mental alertness and athletic performance in healthy individuals. The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) also concur that moderate coffee consumption can be a part of a healthy eating pattern for healthy adults. As Guiding Stars is aligned with current food policy including the DGA, we opted not to include caffeine as a debit in the beverage algorithm. However, children, pregnant women, and other sensitive individuals should avoid or limit consumption of caffeine-containing beverages.
Why aren’t unprepared teas and coffees evaluated by the beverage algorithm?
Although unprepared teas and coffees are sold with the intention of turning them into beverages, we have no way of knowing how they will ultimately be used, or the nutritional quality of the beverages prepared with them. For example, some people drink their coffee black while others may add a creamer and/or sugar. Likewise, some people sweeten their brewed tea while others do not. Unprepared teas and coffees may never end up in a beverage at all, such as when they are used in baked goods or savory recipes. In addition, many unprepared teas and coffees sold on the market do not display a Nutrition Facts label, which is one of the primary data sources that the Guiding Stars program uses to rate products. For these technical and feasibility reasons, the beverages algorithm is only used to evaluate liquid beverages that are sold in a ready to drink state.