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Retail View: Nutritional rating systems gaining traction

More supermarkets are using independent nutritional rating systems on shelf tags, which could bode well for increased consumption of fresh produce.

Nutritional rating systems are on the rise as consumers have increased interest in good nutrition.

Both of the main players operating in that environment — Guiding Stars and NuVal — are experiencing increased use of their product from retailers, with NuVal estimating that its system is being utilized in 1,600 stores, up from 300 three years ago, while Guiding Stars says 1,700 stores are using its five-year-old program. The systems have a similar calculation formula, but they present their findings to the consumer in vastly different ways. Representatives of both firms say that their rating systems are based on science, with nutritional properties — both good and bad — being imported into a computer program with an algorithm spitting out a nutritional value that is relayed to consumers. Guiding Stars uses a zero- to three-star system, with three stars being the most nutritious. NuVal uses a 1 to 100 grading system, with 100 being the top score.

NuVal’s spokesperson, Robert Keane, said that many produce items are valued at the 100-point mark, with virtually all of them in the higher echelon of the ratings sphere.

John Eldredge, director of brand and business development for Guiding Stars, said his firm’s system generally gives produce items two or three stars.

As would be expected, each representative believes their system offers advantages to consumers.

“We have a very simple, at-a-glance system,” said Mr. Eldredge.

He said the Guiding Stars team rates every item in a supermarket with only about 25 percent of the products garnering one star or more. He said the three stars equate to “good, better and best” nutritional value, so if an item gets no stars, it doesn’t make the grade.

Mr. Eldredge said in working with supermarkets, the chain has the option of using the zero-star designation on items or only ranking the items that get at least one star. He said the system’s customers have chosen the latter course and typically only use the ratings for products that have received one star or more.

While the lack of rating may not be top of mind with consumers as they stroll through a supermarket, the Guiding Stars spokesperson said there is ample information available within the store to let consumers know that all items are tested, so if an item has no stars it does not meet the minimum standard.

The value of the system is in its simplicity, he said, and research has shown that it does resonate with consumers. “Consumer research shows that the nutrition-fact panel (located on virtually all packaged foods) is confusing. Our system is simple, and research shows us that consumers do prefer a simplistic system.”

Further research, shows that consumers do trade up when purchasing product in a category, he said. They will buy a one-star item over zero stars, or two stars over one.

Mr. Keane said the NuVal system is more exact, as there is much more detail that can be garnered from a 100-point grading system. If an item is rated as a one, that is duly noted on the shelf tag. He said that a lack of a star might confuse a consumer who could question whether the item has been rated or not.   As a point of reference, Mr. Keane said that most cereals top out at about a score of 25, with the exception of a few, such as shredded wheat, which is a 91.

Like Guiding Stars, the NuVal system uses an algorithm that calculates many factors, including nutrients as well as fats and added sugars. Consequently, Mr. Keane said some scores may seem out of whack but they are not. For example, regular Jif peanut butter gets a score of 21, while the low-fat version of that brand is only rated a 7.

“In making the low-fat version, they took out the fat but they added sugars and sodium, and that lowered the score,” he said.

Both men said that their systems were developed after weighing in many factors and that they do not obscure the facts. Throughout the store, items are ranked properly and anomalies do not exist, they said.

Mr. Keane agreed that the systems are catching on and consumers do pay attention. He said NuVal’s retail customers are seeing consumers buy higher-valued product when given the choice. He said the produce department in the stores that use NuVal tend to do very well as the consumers are met with many high scores in those departments. He added that stores using NuVal tend to emphasize their produce departments.

Both representatives said their respective companies have had manufacturers reconstitute some products in an effort to reduce some of the bad nutritional components and increase some of the good qualities to improve the score.

Guiding Stars was first developed for Hannaford Bros. in Portland, ME, five years ago, and it is still owned by that firm’s parent company, Delhaize America. But Mr. Eldredge said that Guiding Stars Licensing Co. operates independently and the system is available to any retailer. He said it is currently in use by a number of different chains, including Hannaford, Food Lion, Sweetbay, King’s Super Market, Marsh and Homeland Stores. In addition, he said that Loblaw’s in Canada is currently testing it, and the company is also making inroads in the foodservice arena.

The NuVal system was developed at the Yale University Prevention Research Center and is now an independent company. It currently counts 23 chainstores as users of the system, including Price Chopper, Raley’s, Hyvee, Meijer, King Soopers and Giant Eagle. In addition, Mr. Keane said that Kroger’s is in the middle of a pilot in two dozen of its stores.

Both organizations believe the use of these types of systems is on the rise as consumer trends clearly point to increased interest in good nutrition.

“It usually comes down to the core strategy of the supermarket,” said Mr. Eldredge. “For some chains, health and wellness is a very important component and they tend to adopt one of these. It usually comes down to a decision by a single individual. And to some, health and wellness isn’t part of their core strategy.”