Guiding Stars’ updated algorithm considers new Nutrition Facts panel, artificial colors & omega-3s

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Guiding Stars’ updated algorithm considers new Nutrition Facts panel, artificial colors & omega-3s

Related tags: Nutrition facts panel, Nutrition

More than 1,600 foods and beverages evaluated by the Guiding Stars nutrition guidance program will lose stars and roughly 1,400 items will gain stars as of Feb. 1 when the program updates how it assesses the nutritional quality of products to better reflect impending federal regulations and emerging science.

The food rating system, which assigns one to three stars to qualifying foods and beverages based on their nutritional value, will now take into account upcoming changes to the Nutrition Facts panel that will be mandatory as of January 2020, but which many manufacturers have already implemented.

These changes include replacing vitamins A and C with vitamin D and potassium in the Nutrition Facts box, updating the daily values for sodium, fiber and other vitamins and minerals, and requiring brands to break out added sugar separately from total sugar.

“We are just trying to align all of our cut points on the algorithm to … be in compliance with those changes,”​ and to give credit to companies that have already updated their Nutrition Facts panels while at the same time continuing to capture data on the current Nutrition Facts panel, Elizabeth Caton, the client services manager for Guiding Stars, told FoodNavigator-USA.

Caton quickly noted that no products will be penalized for not having updated Nutrition Facts panels prior to the deadline, but some companies that have made the change could benefit – especially with regards to sugar content.

She explained that because the current Nutrition Facts panel does not break out added sugar, the old algorithm would debit points from brands for the whole amount of sugar in their product if there was also added sugar.  Now, however, brands with added sugar broken out will only be penalized for that amount and not the amount of naturally occurring sugars.

This is good news for products that have higher natural sugar amounts, such as yogurt, which also might have some added sugar in the syrups and flavors, she said. Before, yogurt products were debited for the added sugar and the amount naturally occurring in the lactose in the milk, but now they will only be penalized for the added sugar.

While this could result in some products earning a higher star rating, other changes related to the Nutrition Facts panel update resulted in products losing stars, Caton said.

“The FDA updates actually were more impactful than we expected,”​ she said, explaining, “The two main factors that were a determent to foods is there were cut point changes to fiber and sodium and so a number of products lost stars or points because of that.”

The changes to fiber hit grains, flours, cereals and pastas the hardest, while the effect of the lower sodium daily value negatively impacted “almost all packaged foods,”​ Caton added.

Artificial colors will cost companies a star

In addition making changes related to the Nutrition Facts label, the updated algorithm will now take away a full star from products that have artificial colors or dyes – resulting in some products no longer qualifying for the program.

Recognizing that this change likely will be controversial and unexpected given that Guiding Stars is based on nutritional values, of which artificial colors and dyes have none, Caton said the decision was based on guidance from the program’s scientific advisory panel.

The panel based its decision on emerging science that suggests some artificial colors could exacerbate behavior problems in children and even though FDA continues to stand by them as safe, the panel and program “wanted to get ahead of the curve and implement this right away,”​ Caton said.

She also noted that many European countries do not allow artificial colors and dyes and that many manufacturers already are removing them from their products and instead using natural alternatives.

Given that there are alternatives to artificial colors and that artificial colors are not necessary in products, the panel and program “felt strongly … that we should be steering folks away from those products,”​ Caton said.

While this change may come as the most surprising, it is not the most impactful, Caton said. She noted that many products that use artificial colors and dyes do not qualify for stars for other reasons, and that the changes related to the updated Nutrition Facts panel were more impactful.

Omega-3s help brands earn points

Finally, while the program will penalize some products under the new algorithm, it also is rewarding others in the form of giving extra credit to those that have omega-3s as well as DHA and EPA.

“This credit used to only exist in our fat and oil algorithm, but we are adding it across all foods,”​ based on the scientific support that they aid health by offering anti-inflammatory benefits and reducing the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and ADHD, Caton said.

“There just seems to be overwhelming scientific evidence of the benefits of omega-3 properties in food, so we made it universal,”​ she added.

By expanding the algorithm to include omega-3s in all foods, products such as eggs, chicken and fish will now benefit from their omega-3s, she said.

Because omega-3s are not called out in the Nutrition Facts panel, though, measuring their presence in products is a bit trickier, Caton said, explaining that the program will rely in part on call-outs on the front of the package and ingredients box.

Reformulating in response to changes

The sweeping changes will go into effect immediately, and Caton said the program will alert companies that were negatively impacted.

She also encourages companies that are negatively impacted to reformulate and let Guiding Stars know when the revisions roll out so that it can re-rate the products. Caton added that Guiding Stars is also happy to work with companies to find ways to boost their star rating through reformulation. 

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