Courtesy of Guiding Stars
The days of trying to decipher complicated ingredient lists may soon be over: Supermarkets across the country are launching programs that rate the nutritional value of thousands of products. All of them analyze foods against federal guidelines for healthy eating, then award stars, numerical scores, color bars, or checks according to how well an item measures up. Some programs are simple; others, far more detailed. Here's the lowdown on how each one works and how to use them to make the healthiest choices for your family.
How the program works: Products that meet the nutritional standards get one, two, or three stars for a "good," "better," or "best" rating. Of the more than 50,000 items that have been rated so far, about 25 percent have received stars. Stars appear on a label posted on the store shelf next to pricing info.
Stores: 1,500 Hannaford, Food Lion, Bloom, and Sweetbay supermarkets. (Available in some stores since 2006.)
Who's behind the ratings: Hannaford developed the program with input from researchers at Tufts and Harvard universities, Dartmouth School of Medicine, and the universities of North Carolina, Southern Maine, and California-Davis.
Smart ways to use it: The three-star concept is easy to understand, but since the program doesn't provide info on what makes a particular product good, it might be best used to compare very similar items (two types of yogurt, for example, or several frozen-entrée choices).
How the program works: Foods are scored between one and 100 (higher is better). The system considers good and bad components of food and how strongly they impact health. So far, more than 50,000 products have been tested. Scores are posted on the store shelf next to pricing info.
Stores: Price Chopper and Hy-Vee supermarkets in early 2009; another 15 chains are expected to roll out the system by year's end.
Who's behind the ratings: A multidisciplinary group of experts led by David Katz, M.D., director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Connecticut.
Smart ways to use it: You can compare similar items (iceberg lettuce rates 82, while romaine scores a perfect 100). Or weigh choices across aisles: For a supper side dish, you could consider, say, baking potatoes (93), white rice (57), or pasta (81 for Barilla Tri-Color Rotini).
How the program works: Products that meet baseline criteria for good nutrition are further evaluated to identify their top one or two benefits among seven categories: fiber, calcium, whole grains, protein, low sodium, low saturated fat, and low calories. Color-coded bar labels on the shelf call out benefits.
Stores: By end of year, the program will be in more than 1,300 SuperValu stores, including Albertsons, Jewel-Osco, and Shaw's.
Who's behind the ratings: The Joslin Clinic, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.
Smart ways to use it: The system is valuable for people who are watching their intake of particular nutrients (if you're following a low-sodium diet, say, or aiming to get ample calcium). Note: The first phase of the program covers only packaged and processed foods.
How the program works: For foods that make the nutritional cut, the label includes a check mark,calories per serving, and number of servings all on the front of the package. The program is voluntary; since companies must pay to participate, smaller producers may opt out.
Stores: With labels on the package, Smart Choices Program will be found wherever you shop beginning in mid-2009.
Who's behind the ratings: A partnership of food manufacturers and retailers, as well as public health and nutrition-science organizations, including the American Dietetic Association and the American Heart Association.
Smart ways to use it: Handy for on-the-run shopping: You can simply grab a product with a check mark, knowing it's met dietary guidelines. Or try limiting your kids' cereal choices, for example, to varieties that earned checks.