BANGOR, Maine — The cafeterias of Eastern Maine Medical Center and The Acadia Hospital are starting to resemble grocery aisles through a new partnership with Guiding Stars.
The nutritional rating system found in more than 1,600 supermarkets across Maine and the country will be implemented at all Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems hospitals by the end of February 2012, according to Jaime Laliberte, who oversees most of EMHS’s employee health initiatives. Acadia, EMMC and Sebasticook Valley Health already are on board with the program.
“It’s not only a partnership between EMHS and Guiding Stars, it’s a partnership between EMHS and its employees,” she said.
Guiding Stars, which uses a system of zero to three stars to indicate a food’s nutritional value, will be displayed next to prepared meals, snacks and grab-and-go items at each hospital’s cafeteria. Food served to patients will not be rated.
EMHS wanted to limit the grocery-store feel, so cafeteria patrons will see, for example, a decal indicating which bread option is most healthful when assembling a sandwich, Laliberte said. Even EMHS health staff were taken aback by how some “healthy” foods fared against the system, including low-fat but high-sugar yogurts and cereals, she said.
“I think a lot of us were surprised at the things that didn’t get rated and how stringent the system is,” Laliberte said.
Guiding Stars is built on a recently-patented algorithm that credits foods based on the content of vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and whole grains and deducts points for trans fats, saturated fats, cholesterol and added sugars and sodium. Three stars is the best rating, while items that fail to meet basic criteria earn zero stars.
A February 2010 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, using ready-to-eat cereals as a case study, showed Guiding Stars positively influenced grocery shoppers’ food buys. The overall purchasing of starred foods significantly rose after Guiding Stars’ implementation in Hannaford Bros. stores.
Created by Hannaford in 2006 and later spun off as a subsidiary, Guiding Stars has gone beyond its supermarket roots to reach schools and businesses with cafeterias as well as hospitals. Among them are Bates College in Lewiston and Idexx Laboratories Inc. in Westbrook, which saw oatmeal sales shoot up 400 percent after the system’s arrival.
MaineGeneral Health of Augusta and Waterville implemented Guiding Stars in June and has found through surveys that customers are choosing more healthful items, according to Shelley Goraj, MaineGeneral’s food service manager and a dietitian.
“If they had three items in front of them, they’d choose an item with a rating versus one without a rating,” she said.
The system has worked well, though cafeteria patrons are sill adjusting to some of the new healthful menu items such as an Asian lettuce wrap, Goraj said.
“Sometimes people are a little scared of trying new things,” she said.
EMHS hopes to boost the number of starred foods in its cafeteria over time, Laliberte said, but will continue to offer a variety of food options, as does MaineGeneral.
As an organization committed to health, the impetus is on EMHS to make nutritional foods more available, she said.
“The more healthy options we have, the better that is for our community,” Laliberte said.