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For the last 50 years, large food corporations set the agenda on what kind of products end up on supermarket shelves and in the kitchen pantry for millions of people. Today, a small chain of grocers called Hannaford is reversing the tide, with a nutrition system that gives consumers a quick, non-biased rating of the healthiness of the foods they purchase.

Hannaford began the Guiding Stars effort to help consumers navigate the aisles for healthy products, much like travelers used stars in the past to guide their travels. Using a mathematical formula that scored food on positive traits (vitamins and minerals, fiber and whole grains) as well as negative (trans-fats, saturated fat, cholesterol, added sodium and sugars), Hannaford’s team of nutritionists devised a three-star system to rate their products. Products were given one star (good nutritional value), two stars (better nutritional value) or three (best nutritional value). Of the 27,000 products surveyed, a surprising 77 percent of them received zero stars; among them were foods that are advertised as being good for you.

Companies like Campbell’s were quick to defend themselves when products in their Healthy Request line of soup received zero stars. “We don’t like the idea that there are good and bad foods out there,” said John Faulkner, director of brand communication at Campbell Soup Company in The New York Times. Calling the Guiding Stars an “arbitrary grading system,” he insisted that his company’s soup aligned with the government’s definition of healthy food. A. Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends, also commented that it was unrealistic for the manufacturers to remove all the fat, sugar and salt because nobody would buy the result. “Look at all those super-duper healthy products that are in those healthy food stores. They don’t taste good.”

Marion Nestle, food guru and a professor of nutrition at New York University, feels that the abysmal marks given by Hannaford reveal “what happens when an independent group sets the criteria.” As evidence of the system’s lack of bias, most of Hannaford’s own store-branded products received no stars. Nestle told Adbusters that while Hannaford’s system is difficult to know because the company has not made the criteria public, she supports the store’s initiative. “I like the Guiding Stars idea in principle,” she commented, “and I think it could be really useful particularly because the criteria – whatever they are – must be really strict. I am most curious to know whether the system encourages healthier choices.” Nestle will be meeting with a member of Hannaford later this year to discuss the results of their program.

The publicity generated by the Guiding Stars is putting the heat on other distributors to label the health value of their products. Already, with the move toward local and organic food, consumer demand has swayed big food distributors to providing better food for the masses. Several companies, including Wegman’s, Kroger and heb have started their own versions of this type of program, albeit with different guidelines. Even if you don’t shop at one of the 150 Hannaford grocery stores in the us, it may not be long before every store boasts a similar system – completely independent of influence from manufacturers – that helps people distinguish the real healthy foods from those that only claim healthiness on the label. With the Hannaford Guiding Stars lighting the way, consumers are already on the path toward taking back control of what they eat.

The Hannaford Brothers supermarket chain developed a formula based on 21 measures, from calcium to fat to sodium, to rate the nutritional value of 27,000 products. Three stars are awarded to its healthiest products and zero to products that did not meet certain standards. Almost eighty percent of the products rated did not receive any stars.

The clear winners: fresh fruit and vegetables. All received three stars.

Other high scorers included pasta (88 percent of the products reviewed earned stars), cereals (55 percent) and seafood – 43 percent of those items snagged at least one star, and salmon earned three. By comparison, the high sodium content of canned soup meant that just 12 percent of the rated items earned one star or more. About a quarter of meat products got at least a single star; boneless, skinless chicken breasts won three.

Soft drinks received no stars. Bakery products also didn’t fare well: just seven percent earned even one star. Cookies, cakes and pies had too much added fat and sugar and not enough fiber. Bread often scored too high on sodium to earn any stars.

In the dairy case, skim milk earned three stars, whole milk got none (due to its fat content) while one percent milk snagged two stars. Nonfat, plain yogurt also earned three stars, but most other yogurt received none because of too much added sugar. Eggs went unstarred, although egg substitutes, which are low in cholesterol, often earned a star or more. Margarine was not rated, but it may be assessed in the second phase of the program. Butter earned no stars.