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PORTLAND, Maine — Guiding Stars really works. That’s the finding of an independent study that examined the Guiding Stars nutrition guidance program at more than 100 Hannaford grocery stores.
According to the study, which focused on ready-to-eat cereals, the program influences grocery shoppers' selections and significantly increases demand for products that are rated more nutritious, at the expense of those that are not. The findings were published in the journal Food Policy.
The Guiding Stars system evaluates the nutritional value of every item in the store, including non-perishables, hot and cold prepared foods, produce, meat and dairy, salad bar, grab-and-go items and beverages. Each item is then rated according to its value: one Guiding Star is good, two Guiding Stars is better and three Guiding Stars is best. All items are scored using a patented algorithm based on the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans and other national evidence-based nutrition policies.
The Guiding Stars program is available in more than 1,800 supermarkets in North America and also operates in public school, college, hospital and corporate cafeterias.
According to the study, “Effects of the Guiding Stars Program on purchases of ready-to-eat cereals with different nutritional attributes,” shoppers were significantly more likely to choose ready-to-eat cereals with one, two or three Guiding Stars, indicating a higher nutritional value, versus those with zero stars, or a lower nutritional value. As a result, the market shares of cereals earning Guiding Stars increased, while those without stars declined in relative proportion. At the same time, the study results suggest that the Guiding Stars point-of-purchase information led customers to become increasingly loyal to products earning stars, even if the prices of those products fluctuate.
Scientists at the USDA, FDA and the University of Florida conducted the research. According to researchers, it validates previous studies that have already demonstrated that the Guiding Stars Program encourages consumers to choose more nutritious foods, especially when making quick purchase decisions. This research was undertaken in response to the Institute of Medicine's 2012 report on front-of-pack nutrition labeling systems, and the study shows that the presence of point-of-sales guidance may help consumers select products that are more nutritious in terms of the Guiding Stars rating.
"This extremely well-designed and rigorous study makes an important contribution to the growing field of nutrition labeling or profiling systems and demonstrates that such systems can indeed positively influence consumer purchasing behavior," stated Leslie Fischer of the UNC-Department of Nutrition and member of the Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel. "This work is very affirming and independently demonstrates that the Guiding Stars program has succeeded at helping shoppers to make more nutritious food choices, thus fulfilling the goal of the program."
In conducting the study, researchers examined purchase data of ready-to-eat cereals before and after implementation of the Guiding Stars Program at 134 Hannaford grocery stores, comparing it with data from an equal number of Hannaford-like control stores across the country without the Guiding Stars system in place. These control stores were included in order to separate program effects from such non-program effects as pricing and advertisements.
"This research is an exciting acknowledgment for the Guiding Stars program. These independent results once again demonstrate the positive impact our efforts have on helping consumers make better nutritional choices for themselves and their families," added Jim McBride, director of operations with Guiding Stars. "It's incredibly rewarding to see our work validated by the leading food scientists in our nation at the USDA and FDA. And it is further evidence to our clients, as well as other retail and food service operators, that Guiding Stars is an effective, easy and convenient solution to encourage healthy choices."
"Poor diets are a significant cause of obesity, heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis and other health conditions that impose an economic burden on individuals and society overall," study authors wrote. "Our ﬁndings suggest that GSP has encouraged Hannaford customers to switch from cereals that the GSP considers less nutritious to cereals that the GSP considers more nutritious."
The study authors concluded "point-of-sale nutrition information programs may be effective in providing easy-to-ﬁnd nutrition information that is otherwise non-existent, difﬁcult to obtain, or difﬁcult to understand … the presence of this type of information may help consumers select products that are more nutritious in terms of GSP star rating."