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For Immediate Release: September 14, 2009

NN: Using the Rating Game When Grocery Shopping

Nutrition Notes
Week of October 26, 2009
Contact: Alice Bender, (202) 328-7744

Using the Rating Game
When Grocery Shopping

Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

When grocery shopping, how do you find the healthy options? Although most people claim to check food labels’ ingredient or nutrition information, surveys suggest that many aren’t sure how to interpret what they see. Now shoppers have another way to discover healthy food choices. Supermarket chains nationwide have launched systems to rate the healthfulness of specific foods by using shelf tags or on-package symbols.

You can’t go wrong by filling your cart with fresh or frozen plain vegetables and fruits, dried beans and unprocessed whole grains.  Beyond that, however, when the labels get confusing or you feel time-pressed, the shelf labels may help. The only catch: You need to learn how the ratings work in the stores where you shop in order to use them effectively.

Healthy Ideas is the Giant Food and Stop & Shop rating system developed by an advisory panel of physicians and nutritionists affiliated with medical research institutions. A food is awarded the “Healthy Ideas” symbol if it meets the FDA definition of “healthy” (meaning it’s low in fat and saturated fat, trans fat-free, limited in cholesterol and sodium and qualifies as a good source of fiber, protein, vitamin A or C, calcium or iron) or certain other health claims. Some foods, such as dairy products, will also need to fall within limits on sugar content. All fresh produce automatically qualifies for the symbol, and foods that are not considered important sources of nutrients (such as certain snacks, sweets and beverages) are not rated.

Nutrition iQ is used in a variety of Supervalu stores, such as Acme, Shop’n Save and Albertson’s. Developed in collaboration with registered dietitians at the Joslin Diabetes Center, it is also based on FDA nutrient label criteria. But instead of awarding one symbol to foods that meet all criteria, foods receive color code bars to identify those that are good sources of fiber (orange), calcium (blue), whole grain (orange) or protein (yellow); or low in sodium (green), saturated fat (red) or calories (purple). In order to carry a bar in any of these areas, a food must first meet criteria for limited saturated fat and sodium content, and some foods for sugar content. At least initially, the program targets packaged and processed foods and won’t rate fresh meat, poultry or fish, oils, sweets or most beverages.

Some stores may use their own systems of color-coded signs highlighting special benefits. For example, Trader Joe’s identifies foods with different colors and symbols that are heart-healthy or low sodium, as well as those that are gluten-free, vegan or quick to prepare. Just keep in mind that most systems like this don’t put these tags only on foods that are low in saturated fat and sodium. So you may pick up a food tagged as fat-free or vegan that has sodium content higher than generally recommended.

Guiding Stars, found in stores including Hannaford’s, Food Lion and Blum, and NuVal, found in stores including Price Chopper and Giant-Eagle, each use privately owned scoring systems developed by researchers from several prestigious universities. Guiding Stars’ formula awards qualifying foods one (good) through three (best) stars. NuVal analysis scores all foods from 1 to 100, with higher scores indicating higher nutrient content. Both systems use complex formulas to evaluate a host of nutrients, so scores reflect a wide range of foods’ nutritional value, but place less emphasis on some basic qualities that define overall healthy eating.

People’s nutrient needs differ, so priorities in choosing healthful food may vary. These rating systems may be some help in making smart food choices when you feel overwhelmed by food label information.


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