Here's A New Way Of Looking At Nutrition Facts

The FDA is hard at work creating new nutrition label guidelines that would be clearer to most Americans. But according to the International Food and Agribusiness Association, over half of all Americans do not even glance at nutrition labels. We spoke with Dr. Leslie M. Fischer, a nutrition research professor at the University of North Carolina, and researcher for Guiding Stars, a company that aims to overthrow the nutrition labeling system and replace it with a star system that would rank groceries based on healthfulness.

Why don't people look at nutrition labels?

Labels are typically found on the side or back of a product, so are not immediately obvious or visible and require that the product be picked up and examined. In addition, the label is filled with a lot of words/data in small print which can be difficult to sift through and understand. Not only are literacy skills required to truly understand the nutrition facts label, but also some mathematical calculation may even be required to figure out the nutrient content for the amount or prepared form of the food that the consumer plans to eat.  And the abundance of information, such as that found in the footnote, can simply overwhelm and confuse the consumer.

How will the new FDA changes shift that, if at all?

The information will become somewhat more streamlined and condensed. For example, the actual serving size will be referenced, rather than the words "per serving." Extraneous information, not truly needed to understand the product, such as the footnote, will also be removed. These changes will serve to reduce the amount of text on the label itself. Also total calories will be enlarged to be more visible, and highly relevant information which many consumers are now paying attention to, such as added sugars and vitamin D, will be added to the label. However, the level of detail will not change significantly; thus, consumers will continue to be confronted with many of the same issues as before.

Why are people more likely to look at rating systems like Guiding Stars?

Guiding Stars is a highly visual symbol-based program that appears on the shelf right at the point of purchase. The bright green, yellow, and blue colors and the simple, easy-to-understand one, two or three-star rating make it easy for consumers to identify the more nutritious foods on the shelf at a glance. Systems like this one do not require literacy skills of any kind, nor does it require that the product be picked up and inspected. 

How do the Guiding Stars work?

The Guiding Stars system evaluates the nutrition quality of every food in the grocery store using information available to the consumer on the Nutrition Facts label. Each food receives a numerical score based on a system of credit and debits. Foods are credited for the presence of vitamins, minerals, whole grain, and dietary fiber, and debited for the presence of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars, and added sodium. Based on the resulting score, foods receive a rating of one star for "good nutritional value", two stars for "better nutritional value," or three stars for "best nutritional value."  Foods that do not meet the system's rigorous criteria and have a zero or negative score (indicating that the debits equal or outweigh the credits) do not receive a star rating. 

Where are the Guiding Stars? Are they in many grocery stores?

Guiding Stars is currently implemented in over 1,900 grocery stores in over 20 U.S. states and 2 Canadian provinces. Guiding Stars has also been implemented successfully in food service locations such as hospital cafeterias, college dining halls and corporate cafeterias, as well as in the Shopper mobile application and the ServeItUp! online and mobile healthy eating program launched in the Pacific Northwest by Premera Blue Cross.

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Joanna Fantozzi is an Associate Editor with The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter@JoannaFantozzi