In the last couple of years, supermarkets and manufacturers have launched a number of programs aimed at helping shoppers make more healthful decisions when purchasing food. The Food and Drug Administration has even gotten involved, vowing to come up with a single set of nutritional criteria for food makers' front-of-the-pack labels. The open question about all of these efforts is whether they'll actually work, both to increase purchases of more nutritious foods and, ultimately, to bring down rates of obesity and related diseases.
A study published earlier this month suggests one system is headed in the right direction, at least as far as sales go. Grocery store chain Hannaford Bros., which operates in New York and New England, implemented its Guiding Stars program in September 2006. The program assesses every food item in the supermarket and, on a shelf label, assigns it between zero and three stars, depending on its levels of saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, added sugars, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and whole grains. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that in the chain's 168 stores, the percentage of items purchased that rated at least one star rose from 24.50 percent before the program's introduction to 24.98 percent and then 25.89 percent in the subsequent two years.
Those don't sound like particularly big increases. But they are statistically significant, says Lisa Sutherland, an author of the study and a research assistant professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. She also was impressed that the effect persisted two years out; people didn't abandon starred foods after the novelty of the program had worn off. Moreover, small changes can have big effects across a population, in the same way that a few points of change in average blood pressure can make a difference in terms of health. The increase over two years translates to about 2.9 million more starred items being purchased each month, says Sutherland. (She helped develop Guiding Stars, and the study was funded by Hannaford Bros.) The biggest changes were seen in frozen foods, dairy products, snack foods, and cereal.
Of course, there's plenty of room for improvement. In 2008, just over a quarter of Hannaford's food offerings actually qualified for at least one star. If you stripped out fruits and vegetables (which all get stars), somewhere around 15 percent of the store's foods would merit at least one star, says Sutherland. Obviously, if people are going to buy more healthful foods, those foods actually need to be available. Sutherland says she hopes consumer demand will fuel changes in manufacturing practices. That can take a while as companies reformulate recipes and try to strip out fat, sodium, and sugar without losing taste (and without increasing costs and prices). In the meantime, Sutherland hopes the program will help consumers make gradual changes, such as switching from whole milk to 2 percent, or 2 percent to skim.
I spoke last week with a former food industry executive about what companies can do to help fight obesity. What changes would you like to see them make, both in terms of manufacturing and marketing?