A Scarborough company has received a U.S. patent for the process it uses to rank the nutritional value of various foods.
Guiding Stars, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hannaford Supermarkets, was officially founded in 2008. The nutrition rating program is used more than 1,600 supermarkets, including the Hannaford chain, Food Lion, Bloom, Sweetbay, Kings Super Market and Homeland. It’s also being used by some college cafeterias, including Bates College in Lewiston, and by some hospitals, including MaineGeneral in Augusta and Sebasticook Valley Health in Pittsfield.
Guiding Stars has developed an algorithm for measuring a food product’s overall nutritional value, explained Jim McBride, director of operations. It boils down to a system of credits and debits, McBride said. A product will get credits for vitamins, dietary fiber, whole grains, minerals and other ingredients that are good for you. It receives debits for trans fats, saturated fats, dietary cholesterol, added sugar, extra sodium, and other stuff that’s bad for you.
“It’s a balancing act, if you will,” said McBride. “It’s all done on a standard, 100-calorie portion, so you can easily compare foods in any area of the store.”
It was that algorithm that received the patent, McBride said.
“It really speaks to the credibility of the science behind the program, and that it’s a unique approach that’s well-documented,” said McBride.
The products are marked with a little logo — it looks like a stylized man running. If the logo is colorless, the product doesn’t meet the basic nutrition standards. If he’s blue, and has one star, it has good nutrition value. Blue with two stars is better. And blue with three stars is best.
“That’s where the innovation really is. Our program is very simple, very easy to understand, can be used by kids, grandparents and every age in between,” said Betts FitzGerald, managing director at Guiding Star. “It’s a quick way to identify more nutritious foods in a variety of settings, from a supermarket to college food service to a hospital.”
The scientific basis for the ranking, and the ease of use, has earned Guiding Star a degree of respect from nutrition advocates. Other programs, such as the Smart Choices program, was developed by food manufacturers, and turned out to be flawed, ranking sugary cereals as nutritious.
“I think it’s a quite responsible system for rating the nutritional quality of foods,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest, of the Guiding Stars program.
“Hannaford has had some good success; it’s spurred some manufacturers to reformulate their products.”
There are a number of such rating systems out there now that are sensible, said Jacobson. He also thought that the diversity of places using the Guiding Stars system beyond supermarkets was a good thing.
“The more places that provide easily understood nutrition information, the better,” he said.
The company also has a feature on its website, the Food Finder, allowing users to look up food products and see the ranking, and an app for iPhones, as well.
The company has 12 full-time employees and a pool of temporary workers it uses to key in data on foods. The data must be constantly updated as companies reformulate the food recipes, McBride noted. Guiding Stars is not yet profitable, but hopes to be so in the next few years.
When the company started, the main focus was on supermarkets, said FitzGerald. But the expansion into hospitals, colleges, local public schools and even corporate cafeterias has taken off, as well, she said. IDEXX Laboratories in Westbrook began using the Guiding Stars program at its cafeteria in April, for example.
She noted the company has a consulting dietitian on its board, and also works with chef Erin Dow, a Fort Kent native who is developing Guiding Stars recipes. The company is looking at putting out a cookbook with those recipes, she added.