Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Bright New System to Shine Some Light on Healthy Food Choices

"Nutrition choices made simple." Does that sound like an oxymoron to you? If you said yes, you're not alone. It can certainly be tough to get a clear idea of what constitutes a healthy food choice and what doesn't when you're shopping for groceries. With the realization that many if not most consumers continue to be confused by nutrition messages, there's a new program being rolled out that is designed to clear up some of that confusion and guide you to making healthier food choices. It's called Guiding Stars program and it's coming to a Loblaws store shelf near you.

It's pretty simple and usually safe to say that whole, natural, single-ingredient foods are the best options for our health, but things can get a whole lot trickier when looking at those items on the store shelves with long ingredient lists seemingly written in code with difficult to interpret nutrition facts panels. Trying to figure out what foods are best for us and our families can feel like trying to solve the daVinci Code. In the past, we've received tips and guidance on how to make informed, healthy choices, and certain programs or initiatives have been created along the way to better guide us, such as the health check program. Since plenty of confusion and mixed messages continue to exist, the new Guiding Stars program aims to silence all that kerfuffle and literally make choosing healthy foods a simple(r) task.

According to the Guiding Stars website, "Nutrition can be as easy as 1-2-3. Guiding Stars analyzes foods and translates the nutrition information to a rating system that is easy to understand". The system is designed to rate foods based on nutrient density (amount of nutrients per calorie) using a scientific algorithm (higher nutrient density is better, with penalties for "unhealthy" nutrients). Foods that are part of the program are marked with tags indicating 0, 1, 2, or 3 stars. Simply put, the higher the nutritional score the food receives, the more Guiding Stars it receives. Zero stars suggests that a food has a poor nutritional value, while three stars indicate the best nutritional value.

While this system is great in theory (that's usually the case), it certainly isn't perfect or without flaws. For example, an extremely nutritious food such as real cheddar cheese receives zero stars because it contains a large percentage of fat (even though the fats are not unhealthy and cheese also contains calcium, phosphorous, vitamin D and magnesium, among other nutrients). Meanwhile some fortified, processed foods like cheesy popcorn or cheese puffs get a better score because they have nutrients added or less fat. Clearly, some re-evaluation needs to be done.

Regardless, a great deal of time and energy went into creating this program which truthfully has more good points than faults. Given that the criteria for the system is clearly laid out and transparent, there are no hidden agendas for labeling certain foods and not others. This program is ultimately designed to help guide consumers and build upon their existing knowledge of nutrition and health when making food choices. Consumers are still the ones making the final decisions as to what they want to buy and they have access to a world of other information on which to base their decisions. Hopefully this new system will achieve it's goal of helping consumers make healthier choices, and as far as I'm concerned, any help in that department which is based on sound science is better than none at all.

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