Many Canadians want to eat better, but figuring out which products are good – and which should be avoided – can be a daunting task.
Grocery stores are lined with items that make promising health claims on their labels, but may also be filled with too much salt, sugar or fat or be devoid of any real nutrients.
Now, Canada's largest grocery chain is hoping to make that task a little simpler by introducing an easy-to-understand system that scores foods based on their nutritional value. Loblaw Cos. Ltd. will announce Friday
its plans to introduce the program at its 44 Loblaw stores in Ontario on Aug. 10. Expansion to other parts of the country is expected in 2013 and 2014.
The program, called Guiding Stars, gives food a rating of one to three stars depending on its nutritional profile. Foods are scored using a scientific algorithm that gives positive weighting to vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre, whole grains and Omega-3 fatty acids, and negative weighting to saturated fats, trans fats, added sodium and added sugar. Products that don't meet the minimum nutritional criteria under the program aren't given a star. Foods that contain fewer than five calories per serving, such as bottled water, coffee or spices, are not rated.
In the United States, the program has helped shift consumer behaviour, according to John Eldredge, director of brand and business development with the Guiding Stars Licensing Co. In stores that use the system, more consumers are choosing lower-fat milk (which has more stars than whole milk), whole-grain bread over white, leaner ground beef and cereal that has earned a higher star rating.
Based in Maine, Guiding Stars launched in 2006 and has since expanded to many retailers throughout the United States. Loblaw announced last year it was doing a pilot project of the program in four of its Toronto stores.
Although other Canadian retailers have expressed interest in bringing Guiding Stars into their stores, Loblaw has exclusive rights to the program for the time being, Mr. Eldredge said.
Guiding Stars is a private company that uses a team of independent researchers to score food products. Companies such as Loblaw pay a licensing fee to have the program in its stores.
There's no shortage of nutrition labelling programs competing for the attention of busy shoppers. But many nutrition and health experts say Guiding Stars is a cut above the others because it is unbiased and uses clear, objective data to arrive at a score that consumers can easily understand. The program also rates all foods sold in stores, including fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy, not just those products a retailer or food manufacturer is trying to promote.
Other food rating systems, such as the often-criticized Health Check Program administered by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, operate differently. Under the Health Check Program, individual companies pay to have their products rated using the Health Check criteria. That means, for instance, that even though several brands of cereal may qualify to carry a Health Check logo on their labels, only those companies that paid for the rating will get it.
Guiding Stars has been criticized for being too simplistic. After all, knowing that a food has three stars doesn't tell you about its full nutritional profile. But Loblaw hopes the star system can be a stepping stone to help consumers take a closer look at a product's nutrition facts panel or ingredients list.
"That's definitely not our intention, to make it too simplistic," said Alexis Williams, registered dietitian and director of health and wellness with Loblaw.
Amy Goldsmith, a registered and licensed dietitian who runs a private practice in Maryland, said while Guiding Stars is helpful, consumers should always look for more information when choosing which foods to buy. She suggests the program might be better if it gave a "zero" score to foods that don't meet the program's nutritional criteria instead of simply not scoring them at all.
But in order to succeed, consumers have to know about the program. Loblaw plans on having in-store dietitians as well as messages at stores, on flyers and on social media to explain how it works.