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An Interesting Rating Tool December 8, 2010

After my nutrition controversy group finished our end-of-semester presentation on “Nutrient Profiling” methods, I find that my interest in the subject continues. Nutrient profiling systems, are food rating systems designed to compare foods based on their nutritional values to provide quick insight to shoppers looking to make healthy choices. There are dozens of nutrient profiling systems out there, some with substantially better methods of rating foods than others, but all imperfect… at least for now.

 

The Guiding Stars Online Food Finder allows you to compare foods instantly for their nutritional value

The system I focused on was the “Guiding Stars” system, implemented by Hannaford Supermarkets in 2007. Guiding Stars is now used by 1,300 grocery stores, two universities, and one public school. The system gives foods 0, 1, 2, or 3 star ratings based on how their nutritional contents measure up. 3-star products are considered the healthiest products within their categories.  Of course, what is healthiest is not always the same for every person. The star ratings are based on what would be best for the general population, most of whom could benefit from controlling or losing weight.  For those in the population who are on the low-end of the weight spectrum or who are underweight, I do not think these star ratings will necessarily benefit in several cases.  Most of the criteria used to evaluate the foods seem like good ones to me based on my studies of what constitutes a healthy diet. The one glaring problem that I have with the system is that it does not deduct points from non-caloric sweeteners. While these do not add calories to a food, the health consequences of heavy use of these artificial sweeteners are not entirely known and may be harmful. For diabetics, artificial sugars can be very useful but for others I do not see them as beneficial and may cause more problems than their worth.

With that being said, I do see the value in Guiding Stars as a general, user-friendly reference. Few of us have the time or energy to critically evaluate the labels of everything we eat, so a system that does the work for us has its appeal. Try comparing some of the foods you buy on the online Food Finder site. You may find that some foods you thought were healthy aren’t really as great as they seem and others that you thought weren’t so great are actually quite good for you!

Try it at home: Visit http://food.guidingstars.com/

Want to get the nutritional facts for the foods you eat at Tufts? Try Tufts Nutritional Analysis Program.

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5 Responses to “An Interesting Rating Tool”

  1. Thank you for your focus on and thoughtful comments about Guiding Stars and the online Food Finder! I am a Registered Dietitian and a member of the Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel that developed and oversees the science behind the algorithm used to analyze food and beverage items. The algorithm is based on the recommendations and guidance of leading national and international scientific authoritative bodies in nutrition and health, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and others. Foods and beverages that receive stars (1, 2, or 3 stars for good, better, or best nutritional value) have attributes that promote health and support disease prevention. Guiding Stars is an easy to use tool for finding items that have the most nutrition for the calories. This is useful for anyone interested in choosing nutritious foods and beverages in their diet, regardless of the amount of calories they need. This is because foods and beverages with Guiding Stars have less saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars and added sodium and have more vitamins, minerals, fiber, and whole grains. Use the stars to guide you to the most nutritious items that meet your specific preferences, tastes and needs. Keep in mind that five nonnutritive sweeteners have been approved by the FDA as food additives. They are saccharin, aspartame, neotame, acesulfame-K, and sucralose. Since the scientific consensus is that these are approved by FDA and safe for use, Guiding Stars does not debit items for inclusion of nonnutritive sweeteners. Please continue to follow Guiding Stars and visit http://www.guidingstars.com for recipes, blogs and more information that you can easily use.

    Lori A. Kaley, MS, RD, LD, MSB
    Scientific Advisor
    Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment Lori! I have been enjoying continuing to look up foods on the online food finder. The other day, for example, I was curious to see whether there were any three-star frozen pizzas that looked good (since most that I’ve tried were tasty but highly caloric and high in saturated fat and sodium). I was excited to see the suggestions that I can now look for in stores and try out.

      Despite FDA approval of non-caloric sweeteners I do believe that high consumption of these ingredients (like over consumption of nearly anything) can be problematic. The evidence is currently mixed about whether or not aspartame consumption increases risk of certain cancers, for example. There is not enough causal evidence for the FDA to ban the sweeteners from being used but this does not mean that high intake cannot harm us. I have seen reputable studies that came to both conclusions: aspartame consumption increases cancer risk/ aspartame consumption does not increase cancer risk. What has been proven is that some of these artificial sweeteners (including aspartame) can cause GI distress in humans. [As Lori points out in her next comment, the difference between calorie-free sweeteners and sugar alcohols should be made. Sugar alcohols (used in sugar-free chewing gum) commonly causes GI distress. Aspartame, which is not a sugar alcohol, is much less likely to cause these symptoms.] Eating a stick or two of artificially sweetened gum is unlikely to cause problems and will help prevent tooth decay. Eating several packs of gum containing artificial sweeteners will probably give the consumer diarrhea. The cancer studies that I saw were conducted in rats so we have to be careful before generalizing these results to humans. Other studies, however, like the second link below show adverse effects from these sweeteners in humans.

      Here are a couple of links:
      1. “Sour Finding on Popular Sweetener: Increased Cancer Incidence Associated with Low-Dose Aspartame Intake”
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1392271/?tool=pmcentrez
      2. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010.
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892765/?tool=pubmed

      Guiding Stars was my favorite of the rating systems we examined. I would love it however, if Guiding Stars could, like the NuVal rating system, make some kind of deduction for use of artificial sweeteners and provide a number so that foods could be compared within their star rating categories. Right now, Chobani Strawberry Non-Fat Greek Yogurt is given the same rating as Hostess Twinkies: zero stars. I do agree with the deductions for added sugars in the yogurt that give it a low rating but certainly (with no fat and a great source of calcium, probiotics, and protein) the yogurt seems to still be a much healthier food option than twinkies…

      Just a few thoughts!
      -Andrea

      • Hi Andrea,
        Thanks for your reply to my comment. I have some more information to share with you. Use the link below to check out the scientific information on each of the 5 nonnutritive sweeteners as well as their acceptable daily intake (ADI) levels and their use related to health. On Slide #7 the ADI is described in detail and the FDA uses a conservative amount usually reflecting an amount 100 times less than the maximum amount at which no observed effect occurs in animal studies. In other words, we would rarely consume those amounts.
        http://www.slideshare.net/aldhamadi/artificial-sweeteners-nonnutritive-sweetener-2010

        I think that the gastrointestinal distress issue you refer to is related to nutritive sweeteners known as sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols include sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol and others. With the exception of erythritol, sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed in the small intestine which can lead to bloating, diarrhea and flatulence. Check out more information about sugar alcohols at this link http://www.ynhh.org/about-us/sugar_alcohol.aspx
        I do not know of any scientific evidence that nonnutritive sweeteners alone such as aspartame cause gastrointestinal distress. There may be times when nonnutritive sweeteners are mixed with sugar alcohols in a product and the sugar alcohol causes the GI symptoms. Since sugar alcohols do have calories, Guiding Stars includes them as added sugars which are negative attributes.

        Regarding the Chobani Strawberry Non-Fat Greek Yogurt, a fat-free plain yogurt would receive 3 stars and have all the nutrients of yogurt that you mention without the added sugar. Then go ahead and add sliced fresh or frozen (no sugar added) strawberries that would also receive 3 stars and you would have a delicious 3 star strawberry yogurt using the most nutritious foods!

        This is where Guiding Stars is so useful, it guides you to the 1 star = good, 2 stars = better, and 3 stars = best nutritional value for food and beverage items. Thanks for your support of Guiding Stars and the online Food Finder and here’s to your health!

        Lori A. Kaley, MS, RD, LD, MSB
        Scientific Advisor
        Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel

  2. Hi Lori,

    As I mentioned it is easy to find evidence both in favor and against aspartame and other artificial sweeteners at the moment. I appreciate the additional favorable information you shared but am still conflicted since the amount of negative information available is just as prevalent.

    Here are some additional links that I find troubling enough to question whether it is healthy to include many foods with artificial sweetener regularly in my diet:
    http://www.colorado.edu/UCB/AcademicAffairs/ArtsSciences/PWR/occasions/articles/Smith_The%20Bitter%20Truth%20of%20Aspartame.pdf
    http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v62/n4/abs/1602866a.html
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20078374
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1964906/
    http://md1.csa.com/partners/viewrecord.php?requester=gs&collection=ENV&recid=3775038&q=aspartame+safety&uid=790194289&setcookie=yes

    The above articles put aspartame in a very unflattering light. I could just as easily put together list of articles that say that aspartame is perfectly safe but it seems to me that something with this much controversy should not be made a dietary staple.

    I am glad to hear that point deductions are made for sugar alcohols.

  3. Oh, and just in response to the yogurt comment, plain non-fat greek yogurt with fresh or frozen (unsweetened) fruit is one of my favorite snacks: https://thegreatplate.wordpress.com/2010/12/14/study-snack/.

    But sometimes, in a school or hospital food court for example, it is not an option to add your own fresh fruit easily. Even if the fruit is available, the cost of having to buy both items would deter many people from putting the extra time and money to do this rather than quickly grab something more convenient. Do you not think that a strawberry greek yogurt would still be a better snack than many (a cookie, chips, a sugary juice drink)? What do you think about adding a numerical score that would allow people to compare foods within a guiding star category?


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