According to data published in The Milbank Quarterly journal from three supermarket chains and interviews with nearly 800 shoppers in Canada, the introduction of the Guiding Stars system “translated to measurable nutritional benefits” by motivating consumers to choose healthier options.
Specifically, investigators led by Erin Hobin of Public Health Ontario, found the implementation of Guiding Stars' three-star rating system to signal good, better and best nutritional choices, prompted consumers to buy 2% and 1.9% more one and three star products, and 0.7% and 1.9% fewer zero or two star products.
“Overall, the mean star rating per product purchased significantly increased by 1.4% in intervention supermarkets relatives to control supermarkets, translating to a change in mean star rating of 1.22 to 1.24 stars per product purchased,” the report notes.
Analysis of the nutritional value of the products purchased revealed that after the program was implemented, consumers chose on average products with 3.5% and 1.5% less trans fat and sugar and 0.6% and 4.5% more fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, respectively, according to the report.
A closer look at product selection by category also reveals that once the star-rating system was implemented, consumers were more like to purchase healthier products in categories which generally are already considered healthy, such as whole grains and breakfast cereals, dairy and eggs, produce, animal protein and legumes.
Overall, the changes in nutritional value of purchases were “pretty small, but a significant positive change nonetheless, especially looking at the timing of the study,” and that the Guiding Stars program was only about a year old in the participating Supermarkets in the study, said Elizabeth Caton, the client services manager for Guiding Stars.
She explained to FoodNavigator-USA that at the time of the study, “Guiding Stars was very, very new at Loblaws [a retail chain in the study], so to see that much change within this study is pretty amazing because it wasn’t well known or that robust of a program at that time. So, I think, if they were to do it again, they would see even more interest, knowledge and education of their customers because it is an impressive program up there” in terms of marketing support and consumer education.
In addition to leading to more nutritious food choices, the study was the first of its kind to also find that stores with Guiding Stars had higher revenues.
“After Guiding Stars was implemented in intervention stores, the mean number of products per transaction increased by 1.6% and the mean price per product purchased also significantly increased by 1.3%, leading to a total revenue increase of 4.2% relative to the control stores,” the study reported.
Caton acknowledged that the boost in revenues is “a wonderful thing,” but she added the program provides more than just financial returns – it also generates consumer loyalty because consumers “feel that this company is about more than the bottom dollar, and they are about actually helping and supporting the consumer as well.”
More consumer education needed
The results from the study also suggest the benefits of Guiding Stars could be boosted if retailers educated consumers more about the program, including which products are rated and how they are evaluated.
This recommendation is based on the finding in exit surveys that 47% of shoppers were confused about why some products did not have any stars on the shelf tag and whether that meant the product had not been reviewed or was not included in the Guiding Stars program.
“We have battled internally and externally about trying to decide whether to label products that don’t meet our criteria for a star. We made a very conscious decision not to label items that don’t earn stars so only items that are good, better, best nutrition for the calories actually get a star on them,” Caton said, adding that the decision was based in part on not wanting to come across as “food police,” or a diet program.
“Unfortunately, by doing that we do find the consumers are confused. They think these items without stars have never been rated by us or not included in our program,” so Guiding Stars and retailers need to do a better job of explaining this aspect to consumers, Caton added.
Despite this weakness, Caton said the research supports the notion that overall front of pack or on-shelf nutritional rating systems are helpful for consumers of all backgrounds.
“It is a helpful tool whether you are Maine or Colorado, are of a higher socioeconomic subgroup or lower. Using a system like this is really key for grocery stores and dining facilities because it actually does make a significant change in consumers choosing the best food for their dollar and diet,” she said.