Monday, September 19, 2011

Front of package labeling fight! Guiding Stars vs. Health Check

Last week Loblaws announced that they would be adopting Hannaford Brothers' Guiding Stars' point of sale nutritional labeling program.

The program assigns every food in the supermarket a score. Zero, one, two or three "guiding" stars, with more stars suggesting the food is a healthier choice.

Not coincidentally, on the day of Loblaws' announcement the Heart and Stroke Foundation's Health Check program posted something of a response on their blog. Their post, entitled, "One nutrition program we can trust", suggests there's confusion in the market place,

"And more and more we are faced with information that is meant to help us make choices – logos on food packing, rating systems and other health claims. But this can just add to the confusion."
They then detail what they feel is required in a national front of label guidance program.

Their recommendations?

1. Criteria based on science and continue to evolve, that follow Canada’s Food Guide and are publicly available.

Unfortunately, Canada's Food Guide and science aren't on the same page, but for the moment, let's ignore that and focus on the word, "Criteria".

Health Check's woefully underpowered program generally only scores between 3 and 5 different criteria per food item paying to belong, and does so with rather random recommendations. For instance to Health Check, it's perfectly alright for tomato juice to contain 480mg of sodium per cup, while canned tomatoes, a much healthier product, can only contain 360mg, while other canned vegetables, again far healthier choices inherently than tomato juice, are seemingly arbitrarily only allowed 240mg.

Contrast that with Hannaford Brothers' Guiding Stars which utilizes a weighted algorithm that scores 13 or more nutritional criteria for each and every item in the supermarket, and doesn't randomly allow certain products to contain higher levels than others.

And while the exact algorithm for Guiding Stars isn't available, neither is the rationale for the random nutrient levels set by Health Check.

Advantage: Guiding Stars.

2. Meets regulatory environment requirements

I have no idea what that means.

Advantage: Draw

3. Neutral and independent

Health Check is anything but neutral. Only those products that pay for the privilege can display a Health Check, whereas true neutrality would necessitate scoring every item on every shelf. Furthermore, I can't help but wonder whether criteria levels settings aren't dictated by the clout and involvement of the companies licensing them, as again, there's zero rationale for allowing tomato juice to contain more than a third of a day's worth of sodium per cup other than loyalty to those companies paying Health Check a great deal of money to license it as a marketing tool (like Campbell's for instance - makers of V8, Campbell's soups and one of Health Check's largest clients).

Guiding Stars on the other hand scores every single item in the store, and the algorithm was developed by a scientific advisory panel that was shielded from business and industry decisions

Advantage: Guiding Stars

4. Includes an educational component

Health Check does have a website and a blog online. In store however, Health Check provides nothing in the way of education. I'd argue that in store Health Check provides misinformation in that there may well be healthier products on the shelves directly besides the paid for checked products, which Health Check will lead consumers to pass on by.

Guiding Stars also has a website, and Loblaws plans to include in store dietitians consequent to this program's roll out. As well, using Guiding Stars, consumers are provided with 4 different degrees of nutritional gradation with which to compare products. In turn that provides some in store education as every item in every category will be scored. Consequently consumers can educate themselves at point-of-sale as to the nutritional quality of comparable products.

Advantage: Guiding Stars

5. Administered by a credible third party on a not for profit basis

Here Health Check is trying to lean on the Heart and Stroke Foundation's name and non-profit status. But don't kid yourself. The Heart and Stroke Foundation's aim is to grow the Foundation. Health Check raises money for the Heart and Stroke Foundation and also serves as a means to increase brand awareness. Inferring that Health Check is superior to Guiding Stars because the Heart and Stroke Foundation is non-profit is highly disingenuous. Health Check is trying to grow just like every other organization out there.

Advantage: Draw

6. Transparent in its administration

Neither Health Check nor Guiding Stars can claim transparency in administration. Both are administered to benefit their respective parent organizations. Both fail to disclose their methods. Health Check has no explanation for the randomness of those few criteria it includes while Guiding Stars hasn't disclosed its actual algorithm.

Advantage: Draw

Winner: Guiding Stars

As far as I'm concerned, Guiding Stars hitting Loblaws is the death knell for Health Check as it will allow consumers to see Health Check for what it is - a weak, underpowered program that guides people to poor choices (as will be evidenced by Health Check'ed items receiving zero or only one star). Guiding Stars is a far more robust, applicable, and useful program and while it's not my favourite front-of-package system, it's worlds better than Health Check.

There are only two real options left for Health Check. One is to put itself out of its misery (it's the laughing stock of nutritional professionals across the country and it actively misinforms Canadians). The other would be to abandon their current system and instead license and champion Nuval, the most powerful front-of-package labeling program available which rather than a score of 1 to 4 like Guiding Stars, scores every item in a supermarket on a scale of 1 to 100 with a dramatically more robust nutritional algorithm. If they did the latter, I'd be happy to work voluntarily for them as a spokesman.

[Toronto readers only - would love photos of products in Loblaws with both a Health Check and zero or one Guiding Stars! Will happily post as independent blog posts and if you'd like, will link to your profile, site, Twitter persona, etc. Here's a list of the 4 stores currently starred in Toronto]