One relatively new food scoring system that has already been in use in grocery stores for several years now is Guiding Stars. If you live in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, or New York, you may have already encountered and benefited from this system developed and used by the Hannaford Brothers supermarket chain. A few years ago, Hannaford responded to consumer requests to make shopping for healthy foods easier by creating their Guiding Stars program. In this program, the overall nutritional value of foods sold in Hannaford stores is depicted by a number of stars, from no stars for foods containing low levels of beneficial nutrients, to three stars for the most nutritious foods available.
To determine how many stars a food receives, Hannaford simply plugs the information you see on the Nutrition Facts panel into a formula, essentially doing all of those product comparisons for you. It credits a food for the presence of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and whole grains, and debits a food for the presence of saturated or trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and sodium. This system seems to help people buy healthier foods. In fact, over the first 12 months of program use, Hannaford shoppers consistently bought more of the products rated with one or more stars than those with no stars.
Hannaford made an interesting discovery when they rated the foods sold in their stores: Only about 28% of the products they sell rated highly enough to receive one or more stars. In fact, some foods that were labeled and marketed with health claims — including some low-sodium and low-fat products — received no stars at all. Some researchers and product manufacturers questioned whether Hannaford’s nutrition rating formula was too stringent and incorrectly excluded some foods from a better score. Others point out, however, just what most shoppers already know: A food labeled with claims like “Low Fat” or “No Cholesterol” isn’t necessarily highly nutritious and/or low in calories.
For example, the label on a package of black licorice may proclaim that it is a “low fat food.” It does not state, however, that licorice is also a significant source of calories (since it is composed primarily of refined wheat flour and sweeteners), making it a not-so-healthy treat, particularly if eaten in large quantities. Health claims are placed on labels to help sell the food, but they don’t give a comprehensive nutrition analysis and are not enough to distinguish a nutrient-dense food from one that is nutrient-poor.
Overall Nutrition Quality Index
A second new food scoring system is scheduled to appear in selected supermarkets across the United States and online this September. This system, called the Overall Nutrition Quality Index, or ONQI, uses numbers (from 0 to 100) instead of stars to rate foods, and considers more nutrients than the Guiding Stars system. (See “Food Scoring Systems Compared” for details.) Developed by a team of 12 nutrition experts, ONQI assigns nutrient scores to foods based on a formula that includes 30 different factors, including the glycemic load of a food and levels of nutrients such as bioflavonoids and omega-3 fatty acids. (The glycemic load of a serving of food is based on the food’s glycemic index and the number of grams of carbohydrate in a serving.) The ONQI formula is complex and goes beyond comparing just relative amounts of individual nutrients. For example, greater value is placed on nutrients that are known to help prevent diseases such as cancer or heart disease, and foods providing these protective nutrients receive higher scores.