There’s a great article by Andrew Martin in the NY Times. He describes the efforts of a grocery chain in New England, Hannaford Brothers, to provide nutritional information to their customers. The chain has developed a nutritional rating system the call “Guiding Stars”.
Guiding Stars was developed by the chain using information from the nutrition labels of the foods they sell in their stores. We are not told the formula they used to calculate the stars, but we are told that it was developed with a help of an expert advisory panel. We are also told that the chain is trying to have the algorithm patented.
Most (77%) of the 27,000 products rated by the system received no stars. That included a good number of processed foods that are advertised as good for you. You know the routine, the front of the package almost screams at you LOW FAT, and indeed, the nutritional label may show that the product qualifies as a low-fat product. But what you don’t see anywhere else on the packaging label is the large amount of sugar the product contains.
Needless to say, the products that received three stars, the highest rating, were the ones most of us know we should eat: fruits, vegetables, non-fat milk, and so on. The article suggests a “good lunch would be grilled chicken on a bed of spinach with a multigrain roll and an apple.” Well, yes (as long as the portions are modest).
Is this a step forward? Probably. But the article points out the grocery chain didn’t change the placement of its products in the stores. Presumably, that means it’s candy bars, not apples, that tempt you as you stand in line to pay.
A few quotes from the article are worth reproducing here. One is from Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends, a company that tracks the food industry. She said the food industry deserves credit for reformulating their products to make them healthier. But, she notes, “they have to keep the taste. Look at all those super-duper healthy products that are in those healthy food stores. They don’t taste good.” I wonder if she’s been to Whole Foods recently?
More telling is the quote from Hannaford customer, Karen Wilson who said, “If my kids want Cheerios, I buy them Cheerios and don’t look at the stars.” Could that be why the food industry spends billions advertising to children?
Overall, I think it is a good thing that grocery stores are trying to help their customers learn more about nutrition. My local grocery store, Safeway, has partnered with Dr. Dean Ornish, author of five best-selling books, including Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, Eat More, Weigh Less, and Love & Survival, to place cards with nutritional information in different parts of the store.
I believe that the more we know about what we eat the better off we are. It doesn’t guarantee that we will always make the perfect decision about what we put in our mouths, but it does mean we will be able to make informed choices. So keep it up Hannaford Brothers and Safeway and Whole Foods and other grocers out there who are taking steps in the right direction by helping to inform their customers about nutrition.