The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Nutrition Labels

Nutrition Labels

Shoppers and Trends

February 24, 2008

Nutrition Labels
Conflicting health claims on food labels have long been a concern for consumers when trying to make good choices at the supermarket. For many, comparing the caloric and fat content of a food can be as daunting a task as tackling a calculus equation. Labels that promote a food as low-fat or packed with antioxidants or rich in fiber, and so on, can be difficult to decipher, and consumers often wonder which health claims make one item preferable to another.
Some of the new labeling systems may be changing all that, however. Designed to simplify and streamline independent claims made by various and conflicting labels, these ratings systems all use government dietary guidelines as a jumping off point, and then rate items according to other nutrients. And the programs seem to be working. In some stores, for example, sales of whole milk and regular ground beef were down, while sales of skim milk and low-fat ground beef were up – due in part to a new labeling system.
Delhaize-owned Hannaford Supermarkets will begin licensing their nutrition labeling system – called Guiding Stars – this year. The program has been successfully in effect since 2006. Guiding Stars awards one, two or three stars to products identified as being good, better or best. Using their nutritional algorithm, Hannaford put all edible products in the store, except for water, tea, coffee, spices, and any product with fewer than five calories per manufacturer’s service, through the algorithm. Twenty-five percent of those items received stars (the others did not meet the criteria for a star).
“In 2003, we asked our customers to identify issues of concern. What we learned was that all customers recognized the link between nutrition and healthy lifestyles, but that they were also confused by the plethora of often-conflicting information provided by some manufacturers. That was the genesis of Guiding Stars. Guiding Stars has the highest awareness of any program we’re run and is used regularly by almost half of our shoppers,” says Caren Epstein, Director of External Communications for Hannaford Bros. Co.
Data from Nielsen’s LabelTrends research suggests that consumers are indeed paying close attention to Hannaford’s labeling program. This fact is even more evident when compared to sales of products showcasing health-related claims in other stores butlacking a labeling system. Starred items at Hannaford like cereal, commercial bakery, canned products and snack foods grew at 2.5 times the growth rate of those products not given any stars. In other stores, cereals simply making a whole grain claim (but no stars) could not compete. Equivalized unit volume (EUV) for all cereal making a whole grain claim was down 2.6% for 2007.
Another program, started by Dr. David L. Katz of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Connecticut, uses a rating system called the Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI). ONQI works by evaluating all foods in a grocery store on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the healthiest. The ONQI system looks at approximately 30 nutrients, both favorable and unfavorable, plugs those into their ONQI formula (a combination of coefficients with specific health outcomes), and returns with a number on the scale.
How different are the two programs? ONQI plans to rate 100% of food products sold in supermarkets, while Guiding Stars has starred just a quarter of their own products. With their 1 to 100 rating, ONQI will no doubt identify certain products as “healthy” or “unhealthy” without labeling them as such; Guiding Stars approaches the task by identifying only healthy choices, and then degrees of healthfulness among them.
“Consumers have made it clear that consistency, ease of use, and ease of comprehension are critical,” says Epstein.
Though their methods seem at odds at first glance, several major U.S. supermarket chains have indicated an active interest in both licensing systems. It’s possible that both systems may be able to work together to provide even more information to the consumer during their shopping experience than just one system or the other. But could adding more labels just add more confusion?
“The beauty of Guiding Stars is its simplicity,” says Epstein. “Response to our licensing plans has exceeded our expectations.”
Consumers should be the winners here, as it seems that labeling programs are here to stay. Yet a third program is on its way from nutritionist and University of Washington professor Adam Drewnowski, who vows to score products in the mid-range, as well as products that are obviously healthy or unhealthy, and publish his scoring system in academic journals. Food companies, for their part, are adding their own logos and criteria to products, like Kraft’s “Sensible Solutions” and Unilever’s “Choices.” As is the case with most trends, more of the same is sure to come.