- The Guiding Stars nutritional guidance system — which was developed in 2006 to help grocery shoppers make healthier choices — updated the algorithm that determines the number of stars assigned to thousands of food products, according to a news release. The independent food rating system announced the changes Thursday, and they are effective immediately.
- The update incorporates anticipated changes to the Nutrition Facts label; aligns with updated recommended Daily Values for vitamins, minerals, sodium and fiber; and reflects the consensus of nutrition science regarding omega-3 fatty acids and artificial colors.
- Guiding Stars expects more than 3,000 products and recipes to change star values. About 1,400 items will gain stars, while almost 1,700 items will lose a star.
Guiding Stars' proprietary science-based algorithm assesses the nutritional value of grocery items based on their ingredients and information listed on the Nutrition Facts panel. The system can boost sales of some products, as well as generate consumer loyalty for the stores offering the program, which offers a distinct public service while providing a promotional opportunity.
In addition to "measurable nutritional benefits," a recent study also found an increase in sales and revenue in supermarkets offering the Guiding Stars food rating system, according to a press release issued at the end of last year. Published in The Millbank Quarterly, the study reported increases in the number of products per transaction, price per product purchased and total revenues. The U.S. National Academies noted that higher sales may motivate food companies to encourage healthier consumer choices. However, some question why — after more than 10 years of existence — the program is only offered in 1,900 stores, compared to the nearly 40,000 stores in the U.S. that sell groceries.
The FDA's new requirements for the Nutrition Facts label don't need to be implemented until January 2020. And while it seems unlikely that shoppers will spurn a favorite product simply because it has lost a star, shelf-labeling systems have proven to be quite powerful. These programs cater to growing consumer demand for product transparency, and create a strong health halo around brands with perfect scores.
For example, HowGood — a rating program that ranks products as "Good," "Great" or "Best" depending on where and how the food was sourced, how it was produced and how the product manufacturer operates — has seen some of its "Best" rated products experience a 230% sales lift.
It may be wise for food and grocery manufacturers to consider updating their formulas to reflect the new Nutrition Facts guidelines. These new rules include listing added sugars separately from total sugar and listing vitamin D and potassium levels. In addition to the label changes, FDA has updated the percent daily value (DV) for sodium, fiber, and most vitamins and minerals. The Scientific Advisory Panel also reviewed evidence on the anti-inflammatory and disease preventing effects of omega-3 fatty acids. It recommended that the Guiding Stars algorithm be updated to credit foods more broadly for the presence of total omega-3 fatty acids.
A growing body of evidence has also shown that artificial colors have negative health effects and can easily be avoided with use of natural coloring agents such as beet extract. Based on this research, foods containing artificial colors will now lose one star value.
It will be necessary for nutrition-focused rating systems to keep up with regulatory guidance and widespread consumer sentiment in order to stay relevant. The failed NuVal shelf tag program — which gave products a score of 1 to 100 based on their nutritional value — was phased out of grocery stores because of a flawed algorithm, which ranked some snack drinks and desserts higher than canned fruits and vegetables. This should serve as a warning to participating grocers and manufacturers — a shelf rating system will need to be stringently updated in order to succeed.