Hannaford, the supermarket chain in the Northeast, today reports the one-year results of its Guiding Stars program. This, you may recall, puts zero, one, two, or three stars on foods in the store, depending on how the products meet some rather rigorous nutrition standards. When the program started a year ago, less than one-fourth of 27,000 foods in the store qualified for even one star (when the criteria are independent, products endorsed as healthy by their makers do not qualify). Did the program encourage people to choose products with stars over those without them? It did! Take a look at the results and see if you think this approach is worthwhile. Hannaford does not reveal its nutritional criteria for awarding stars because of patent issues. I think it should. If the program works, other stores might be encouraged to try something similar. And here’s what the New York Times has to say about it.
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A comment posted yesterday under the Label category asks whether it is possible to rank foods: “The idea that I’m trying to express is some measure that shows that 100 calories of, say, broccoli sauteed in olive oil is healthier than 100 calories of shortbread cookies or 100 calories of potato chips, even if they happend to have the same number of fat grams.”
I have philosophical as well as practical problems with this kind of approach. First, the practical: Foods contain 40 to 50 components known to be required in the human diet and hundreds more (antioxidants, for example) that are not considered essential but have effects on health. All foods except sugar–which has calories but no nutrients–have lots of different nutrients, but in different proportions. Once you get beyond soft drinks, the situation gets really complicated. Many groups have taken this on: Center for Science in the Public Interest, Hannaford supermarkets, the Australian Heart Foundation, for example. I think they are way too complicated and the cut points set up a slippery slope. If you rank foods high because they contain vitamins, all companies have to do is add vitamins to their products to make them rank higher.
Philosophically, I much prefer the “eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food” approach. Because there are so many different nutrients to keep track of, and because foods have nutrients in different proportions, eating lots of different kinds of relatively unprocessed foods takes care of nutritional needs. Keeping junk foods (highly processed by definition) to a minimum means that you don’t have to worry about the nutritional details and can enjoy what you eat.
Thanks for asking!
At last the FDA is going to take a look at those confusing symbols on food packages purporting to tell you how healthy the products must be. PepsiCo uses green “Smart Spots.” Kraft uses green “Sensible Solutions.” Just about every breakfast cereal sports symbols indicating that they are low in fat, lactose-free, high in fiber, containing whole grains, and so forth. These are unregulated health claims, although the companies would argue that they are just providing information. As the FDA politely puts the matter, “Although each symbol intends to indicate that the food product bearing the symbol is a healthful choice, each symbol program has different nutrient requirements.” Indeed. The FDA will hold hearings on this topic on September 10 and 11 to solicit information and comments. If you have thoughts on whether companies should be allowed to use these symbols or scoring systems, or whether the FDA needs to establish firm criteria for their use, now might be a good time to let the agency know.