A novel nutrition scoring system designed to cut down on confusion in the grocery aisle could soon revolutionize the way Canadians select their food.
The program, called Guiding Stars, was patented in the United States after a panel of independent scientists was commissioned by a grocery chain to develop a guide to steer consumers through the array of nutritious-sounding items – low-cal, high fibre, whole grain, vitamin-enriched – and toward truly healthy. The sophisticated computer algorithm they came up with takes into account nutrition label contents and ingredients to calculate an aggregate score of a food's nutritional value in the simplest of forms: zero stars for bad food, up to three if it's really good.
At a time when the market is becoming glutted with health navigation guises deemed ineffective by most nutritionists – think industry-developed better-for-you logos and fast food-menu calorie counts – a handful of top advocates lauded Guiding Stars for its scientific validity and simplicity; Canadian nutritionists began to lust after it.
So did grocery retailers, whose interest was piqued when Hannaford Brothers Company, the Maine-based grocer that commissioned the system, revealed that the stars were driving higher sales of products with good ratings.
This week, Loblaw Cos. Ltd., the Canadian grocery giant that rings up 14 million customers each week, became the first in Canada to introduce the program via an exclusive pilot project running in four of its Toronto-area stores. Plans to roll out the system nationally – as part of a broader consumer health strategy that will put dieticians on store floors – are tentatively set for next year.
"We want to empower customers to make healthier choices," said Michael Lovsin, the company's senior vice-president of health and wellness. "It's about simplifying it for customers."
Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert and nutrition watchdog who directs the Ottawa-based Bariatric Medical Institute, called the program "a huge step forward for Canadian consumers."
"Unfortunately, we do not have a system in place in Canada to protect consumers from unscrupulous food and product manufacturers who will be very comfortable, and very happy, trying to convince you that that box of sugary cereal is, in fact, good for your child," he said.
While Loblaws has an exclusive licence on the Guiding Stars program, the guide's success in the United States has spawned several similarly rigorous programs that other retailers and food service companies could licence if they want to compete. The only comparative program currently in existence is the Heart and Stroke Foundation's Health Check program, which launched in 1999 with the aim of helping consumers make better food choices.
Critics of that program, including Dr. Freedhoff, have panned it for awarding its checkmark to foods high in sugar, salt and fat, as well as for requiring food companies to pay to be evaluated.
With Guiding Stars, all food products in the grocery store are independently audited – there are more than 20,000 in a Loblaws store – from produce to packaged foods and even ready-to-eat deli items. Food manufacturers have no means of influencing whether or not they are rated or what score they end up with.
As in the United States, Loblaws is drawing on a panel of independent scientific advisers to form its ratings. Alison Duncan, a professor of health and nutrition at the University of Guelph who sits on the panel, said the algorithm Loblaws is using has been tweaked to account for differences between Canadian and U.S. food guides and labels. The algorithm will be regularly updated to account for new government rules and scientific developments, she said.
Despite the program's apparent efficacy, Dr. Freedhoff said, consumers shouldn't rule out reading labels completely.
"Whether or not the particular foods with stars they're purchasing will meet their needs is certainly not a guarantee," he said. "But if you need a quick-and-dirty way to make it through the supermarket shelves making better choices, I do think the stars will be useful."