In addition, the Guiding Stars system, which assigns one to three stars to qualifying foods and beverages based on their nutritional value, also could influence consumers’ purchases -- pushing them to select healthier options, according to the study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
The findings were based on surveys of consumers’ perceptions and purchasing patterns at two eateries at the University of New Hampshire before and after the establishments instituted the Guiding Stars system.
Prior to implementing Guiding Stars, only 34% of patrons of the centrally located, high-traffic eatery Union Court perceived the venue as having healthy food choices that were easy to find always or most of the time. The more sustainably-minded but less centrally located Dairy Bar, on the other hand, was perceived as consistently having healthy options by 79% of the patrons.
This divide shrank considerably once the Guiding Stars system was implemented, even though the food selection did not change considerably, according to the study.
Within one month of implementing Guiding Stars at Union Court, 49% of consumers perceived the venue as always or mostly having healthy food choices that were easy to find – a 15 percentage point increase from before the scheme was launched. Over time the percentage of patrons who held this view continued to climb so that at the end of seven months 53% of shoppers shared this perception.
Shoppers' perception of healthy offerings at Dairy Bar also increased, although not as dramatically as at Union Court, climbing from 79% of consumers who believed the venue always or mostly offered healthy options pre-Guiding Stars to 87% post-Guiding Stars.
The advent of Guiding Stars at the venues not only elevated consumers’ perceptions of the available selection, it also pushed shoppers at Union court to select healthier options more often.
“The percentage of UC patrons who reported Guiding Stars to be an influencing factor in their food selection doubled significantly to 15% seven months after the appearance of Guiding Stars,” according to the study.
That said, researchers were quick to point out that the nutrient content and health of a product was less important to many shoppers than appearance, price, convenience and taste, according to the study.
While the study results are not generalizable beyond college campuses, “eating establishments may find this helpful when they design menus or display information to customers – who are increasingly looking for food options that support their health goals,” Jesse Stabile Morrell, principle lecturer of nutrition at UNH and one of the researchers, said in a statement.
The positive findings come at the same time that retail grocery chains and convenience stores are pushing back against mandatory nutritional labeling for prepared ‘restaurant style’ foods. After much back and forth with FDA, the federal deadline for labeling ready-to-eat meals was pushed back until 2018. But New York City is threatening to enforce the requirement as soon as Aug. 21 – a move that could indirectly prompt large national retailers to adopt labeling nationwide ahead of the FDA deadline.