Would Simple Star Ratings for Food Help People Eat Healthier?

By Valerie Ross | October 21, 2011 4:12 pm

Even when you’re trying to eat healthy foods, it can be hard to know what to buy: Few us have the time to decipher the nutrition facts on every item we’re considering at the grocery store, and the dizzying number of health claims plastered on labels make the task, if anything, more confusing. The Institute of Medicine offered a possible solution in a report released yesterday: put a simple, standardized rating—zero to three stars or checkmarks—on every food package.

The system is designed to be similar to the Energy Star ratings, which let consumers pick out an energy-efficient appliance without wading through complicated specs. Instead of energy consumption, however, these food stars would track levels of three often over-consumed nutrients: saturated and trans fats, added sugar, and sodium. A food will get one star for each of these nutrients it contains in a healthy (i.e., moderate to miniscule) amount. Foods that are off the charts in at least one category—say, candy or butter—automatically get zero stars. Posted on the front of each package, this rating would let consumers assess a food’s healthfulness at a glance, the report says. It’s up to the FDA to decide whether these ratings should be required, and to hammer out the details.

We’re all for making things easy on people trying to eat right, and an easy-to-understand labeling system is a positive step. But a healthy diet isn’t like an electricity bill; it’s not as simple as using less salt or sugar as though you were cutting down on your kilowatt hours. In addition to picking healthy foods, people also have to know where those foods fit into balanced diet—something the new rating system doesn’t reflect. Plus, it disregards other important factors in a food’s nutritional value, such as whether it’s made with whole grains or what additional vitamins and nutrients it contains.

Image courtesy of Eurofruit / Flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Cathy

    It isn’t the inability to read labels – it’s the cost and expense of real, unprocessed food. When I switched to using fresh and raw ingredients from stuff that was pre-processed and pre-packaged, my grocery bill doubled. A salmon filet in the grocery store is $10 a pound – a 16 oz can of salmon is four bucks. A box of mac n cheese is 50 cents; fresh whole grain pasta is $4 a package and you still need to buy the sauce. Hot dogs? $1 a pound. Lean pork? $4 a pound. Fresh salad? $4 for a bag. Canned vegetables? 75 cents. Fresh baked whole grain bread? Three bucks a loaf, compared to 99 cents for a loaf of white sandwich bread from the bread aisle. And that’s not even getting into organic or fair trade foods, which come with their own premium.

  • http://incompatiblewithlife.wordpress.com aek

    Will whole unadulterated foods have stars? The implicit assumption is that they don’t need any since they are optimal as are. What people need to learn is that the real foods that don’t require analysis are the ones they should shoot for in the vast majority of their diets. Or as Michael Pollan put it, “the silence of the yams”. – no advertising, no health claims, just simple perfection.

  • oldtaku

    The Great Karnak foresees… all corn products being allowed to put three stars on the package.

  • Mark Groeneveld

    aek, “whole unadulterated” food is not automatically good for you. For instance eating “whole unadulterated” potatoes every day is quite bad for you (high glycemic load). Same goes for whole milk, red meat and coconuts (high sat. fat).

    Yes whole food is generally much better than processed food, but some whole foods are bad. Some whole foods are better than others and may benefit from some sort of rating system, maybe even this one, painfully shortsighted as it is.


  • Chris

    Fresh salad? $4 for a bag
    Here’s a little hint, buy a head of lettuce and the other vegetables separately it’ll be cheaper than the $4 bag of salad.

    fresh whole grain pasta is $4 a package, Fresh baked whole grain bread? – make your own it’s cheaper.

    A salmon filet in the grocery store is $10 a pound – Get a fishing pole… OK even I’m not that crazy. Really what they should do is tax the unhealthy foods and use that revenue to make the healthy ones cheaper.

  • Jeremy

    @Cathy Yes, it can potentially become more expensive if you eat healthier by trying to eat the same way as you might have before but with higher quality food, but their are methods for eating healthy foods while keeping it pretty inexpensive. It’s up to each person what kind of sacrifices they want to make to eat properly and how much they care about what they want to put into their body. Just one person’s opinion.

  • Catherine

    really what they should do is butt out & let me eat what I want without raising taxes on food when prices are already rising. I doubt you could bake whole grain bread cheaper than you can buy it, besides factoring in time & energy costs & in my neck of the woods it’s cheaper to buy a pre-bagged salad than buy everything seperately, ateast for only 2 people. I don’t over eat & mantain a healthy body wieght/body fat, I shouldn’t be burdened by another tax because other people won’t take care of themselves. Anyway I have a question: What’s the difference between added sugar & natural sugars (as in orange juice or a package of dates) I heard a nutritionalist on the local news say we have to watch out for natural sugars cause they are just as bad, if that’s the case, am I worse off dringing generic orange beverage instead of grape, apple or orange juice if the amount of sugar is the same?

  • Rusty

    I seriously doubt that all gluten containing foods would get the 1 star rating they deserve. Seriously, if it HAS packaging, then there’s no way it could get 5 stars.

  • Mike

    People just don’t understand that the entirety of one’s diet is what TRULY matters. In order to eat enough saturated fats for it to be dangerous would require a serious effort! The sugar scare should be over, but it’s not. Eat at your maintenance caloric intake and you will be healthy. Eat at a slight calorie restriction and you will be even healthier. Exercise and keep calories at the correct level, and sodium and cholesterol intake will not be a problem.

    Attempting to control people via taxing is disgusting. That’s just like telling people that “sad” music should cost more regardless of personal preference. Let fat people be fat, they obviously don’t care enough to do anything about it.

  • annie

    In fresh juice, you will get vitamins and other goodies, including large amounts of sugar. ‘Natural’ sugar is no different from something you will find in any other kind of drink (including corn syrup). So too much fruit juice is almost as bad as too much soda. Some studies have shown that fresh fruit, on the other hand, can be eaten as much as one wants without bad effects from sugar/calories.

  • echoegami

    Catherine, yes, drinking juice is basically drinking sugar water. It’s not as bad as say drinking a soda but drinking juice should be done in limited amounts. That being said, read the ingredients list for your juice sometime and you’ll discover most brands add additional sugars to what is already essentially just sugar water. No wonder so many of us are fat! I have only been able to find one brand of frozen juice that doesn’t add sugar in any form.

    Chris, Here’s a little hint, buy a head of lettuce and the other vegetables separately it’ll be cheaper than the $4 bag of salad. Well, aren’t you the king of snark! Sometimes buying a prewashed bag of lettuce is cheaper than buying a bunch of romaine, especially if there are only two people in a household eating it and/or those people have busy lives and can’t make their own pasta, bread, etc. However, I do agree with you that unhealthy foods should have a tax to help subsidize either the health costs associated with a bad diet and/or help subsidize the costs of healthier choices.

    All, if you’re fortunate enough to have a Trader Joe’s close to you they have much better prices and much healthier options for almost all of your grocery needs. I’m a huge fan and they’re the only reason I can eat healthy and not go broke.

  • John

    @Chris that’s crazy! It just might work…

  • Catherine

    thankyou for helping me with my question, I live in an inner city & fresh fruits can get expensive but I like a glass of juice in the morning. Most of the fruit I get is canned/dried or Juice. I always read the label for added sugars & cut out soda cause I was headed towards normal weight obesity(sugar gut!) The orange brevarage I like costs alot less than OJ, has the same amount of vitamin C & the same calories, sugar. We have a farmer’s market but the prices are worse there.

  • Cathy

    If I didn’t have the little things in life called “work” and “graduate school” I’d gladly bake my own bread and roll my own pasta and grow my own lettuce for salads. :)

  • Michael Berry

    Slightly off-topic, but for produce, if you have any local growers nearby or a farmers market in your area, go and talk to them to see if you can buy shares of the produce grown and harvested each week (depending on the season). If you can find local growers with hoop houses (meaning they can grow all year round), you’ll find even more options. Buying a share will mean you pay a certain amount per year for a share of each weekly harvest…most of the time these shares are plentiful and will get you way more produce than you’ll even use in the week.

    If the local growers have plenty of shares available on a consistent basis (that is, if they’re growing more than they’re selling), they’ll be MORE than happy to work with you on the prices. Farmers markets are easily overlooked for some reason–many people don’t realize that they have a ton of locally grown food right in their neighborhood that they could be getting and instead assume the grocery store is their only source of sustenance. Many urban and city areas have farmers markets as well.

    As far as eating healthy goes, I personally find it very easy to purchase healthy foods and stay in shape. It just takes a certain level of common sense in your purchases. For instance, if you don’t buy junk food, you won’t have any junk food to eat–this kind of food shopping mentality will really cut down on unnecessary eating when you get a craving for fatty snacks like potato chips.

    One thing that more people should do, in my opinion, is to check the caloric content of the foods they’re eating and compare that content to the number of servings in the box. There is a LOT of nutritional information to consider when deciding what to buy or eat, but even if you only look at caloric content, that’s the best start you can make to begin a healthy eating regimen. Keep an eye on that “# of servings in container” amount–sometimes it can be misleading to only look at the calorie content. If a little snack says it only has 100 calories per serving, keep reading–it will likely say that it has 2.5 or 3 servings in the container. That snack is now 250 or 300 calories.

    If you really want to get healthy, start a food diary. Even if you aren’t sticking to a specific diet, just writing down and looking at what you eat throughout the week can really cause a shift in the way you eat. When you look back at your food diary at the end of the day and you see a lot of unnecessary snacks and get guilty, you’ll find that you start cutting down on poor eating habits just out of the desire to keep your diary clean. Weird, but it worked for me.

    Of course, these are all simply my opinions from my own experiences. I am in no way, shape, or form a dietitian or farmer and my words should not be taken as gospel. Everyone is different and every body has different requirements!

  • Psychohistorian

    Not all these things are created equal. High sodium is only a problem for some slice of the population. My understanding is that the jury is still out on saturated fats (particularly for those with an active lifestyle, but that’s not important here). Added sugars are probably a bigger problem. But net calories are maybe the biggest. You can still make a product with a ton of fat and sugar and get it rated 2 stars under this system, as long as you avoid animal fats and excessive salt. This plan largely ignores the fact that it’s very easy to game such a system.

    I’m not sure there’s a better way to go about this, but this doesn’t seem like it’ll be terribly effective.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    Nope. Unhealthy people will continue to be unhealthy regardless of how many things you do to make them healthy. That’s human nature.

    We don’t eat the way we evolved. We eat a wide assortment of fats, sugars, starches, carbos, and meats whatever, every meal. When we were evolving we ate one thing, looked for more, ate something else, looked for more etc.

  • Douglas Watts

    I love rich people telling me I need to eat less and eat ‘better’ when I am looking at not having enough food and heat to get through the winter.

    Thanks for caring, you idiots.

  • Geack

    @ Douglas – sorry to hear it. Seems the article doesn’t really apply to you – lack of food isn’t the problem this rating system was meant to address.

    @ Cathy – There’s some confusion here between “healthier food” and “whole unprocessed food”. There’s no purely nutritional reason to buy organic or “whole” or “natural”. That $.99 can of tuna – if you buy the can with tuna in water, not in oil – has essentially the same nutrition content as a $12 tuna steak of the same weight. Frozen veggies have essentially the same nutrition content as fresh, and many canned veggies are so close as to make no difference (although you need to watch the salt content of some canned veggies if you have blood-pressure risks.) Go ahead and eat the white bread for lunch (it’s not poison); just have whole-grain cereal for breakfast a couple times a week.

    The “processed” food that can be problematic is the pre-cooked stuff – tv dinners and such. It’s perfectly possible to eat healthily on a budget – you just need to sort out which advice is truly about nutrition, which advice is geared toward more esoteric concerns like farming practices, and which advice is just trendy lifestyle nonsense.

  • badnicolez

    I buy whatever healthy food is on sale each week. I stock up and cook healthy meals in large batches around the fresh meat and (fresh, frozen, canned) produce that’s cheapest that week. I really stock up on non-perishables when they are on sale and am very careful to track what I do and don’t have in the house. Planning and organization are critical to minimizing or eliminating waste (lists are a necessity for this).

    Having both a full-size freezer and large pantry (converted closet) help, because I have storage space and can freeze leftovers for later so we don’t get sick of eating the same thing.

    In the summer we eat lots of salads and veggies and meat grilled in fruit-based marinades, and in winter we eat a lot of chili and soup with lots of veggies and beans (which is also a great way to stretch meat). This is almost always cheaper than eating processed food of any sort and keeps us lean and mean. We have also avoided the obesity epidemic to which so many of our friends (who tend to eat out a lot) have fallen prey.

  • Anon2

    I thought governments were worried about aging populations?

    If people ate more healthily, exercised and stopped smoking wouldn’t that make the “aging population problem” worse?

    If instead more people ate more (spending $$$), smoked more (spending $$$) and died younger, not long after their most productive years, wouldn’t that solve the problem?

    Eat, Drink, Smoke and be Productive. Then die for your country and future generations ;).

    Yes, those who smoke may die in expensive ways, BUT you can always tax tobacco to pay for it. Those who don’t smoke and live longer, would eventually still die, possibly in expensive ways too.

  • Scott

    This is so stupid, and reflects the absolute ignorance of our society in the area of nutrition. It’s not rocket science. I get so sick of hearing from everyone that they don’t know how to eat.
    It’s built in, we (common sense) know better.
    A processed box of milled flours filled with fake oils and processed sugars…..or something frozen with an ingredients list a mile long….
    vs….roasting a fresh chicken with some green veggie and making a fresh soup, or salad with it.
    PEOPLE KNOW BETTER…they are just lazy and or ignorant and dont even try.
    I know so many people who spend hours watching various useless TV shows and updating Face Book all the time, but wont spend any amount of time preparing a real food, home cooked meal / or learning how.

    My dinner last night – a green salad with olive oil, sun dried tomatoes and goat cheese, roasted chicken with buttered brussels sprouts. What did I see everyone eating at Universal Studios Halloween Horror night later on??? Soggy Pizza, processed hot digs, ice creams, cotton candies, junk, 48 oz sodas and 2/3 the people there were fat! I felt great, slipped into my 31 jeans and size small teeshirt (hard to find now) and had to wiggle my way through all the obesity – by the way, saw several people getting kicked off the Mummy Ride because they were too fat, a few others the assistants had to come over and SHOVE IN THEIR fat to make the security bar go down. One of the obese guys was screaming on his way out profanities at the kids working the ride who made him get off.
    We have become a pathetic, ignorant society, devoid of science, art, creativity. And we are paying the price and will continue to. Peopel have a CHOICE – even if they must eat fast food. Here, in LA you can go to El Pollo Loco and get roasted chicken with veggie or salad…..or go across the street to McDonalds and eat mostly processed carbs and rotten, rancid oils……everyone, deep inside knows what would be a better choice for them. Many are just too lazy, depressed, ignorant, sugar addicted and complacent to care.

  • candy

    if you eat good food, it will help your body fight disease. however stars on the package might discourage some from reading the ingredients which is the only way to know if they have added stuff to it. but it may help the masses who dont read.

  • scott

    My grocery store uses the NuVal system (http://www.nuval.com/How). It’s a 1-100 ranking system based on nutrition. I think I like this system better than I would like a 0-3 star rating which seems much too simplified for comparison shopping. Over all though I think it makes a lot of sense to simplify how consumers can view the nutritional information for easy comparison shopping. Labels provided by manufacturers are often misleading and basic information like “calories per serving” isn’t enough to tell you the whole story. Comparing the ingredients and USDA recommended percentages across multiple products while zooming through the store after work needs to be simplified to be done effectively by most people.

  • floodmouse

    The 3-star system might have a mild positive effect, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. The star system would only help when comparing several brands of a similar product–then it would be faster the grab the low-fat low-sodium product. The star system would also serve as a frequent visual reminder to think about nutrition. Unfortunately eating nutritious foods is a lot more complex than reducing fat and sodium. You ought to be sprinkling a variety of fresh foods into your diet to get the complex phytochemicals, flavenoids, etc., not just an A-B-C-D-E primer of added vitamins. Early childhood education is the only cure for the problem, but of course it has a time-delayed effect. You can’t make parents buy & cook healthy food for the kids, but you can teach the kids things they will remember when they get old enough to make their own buying decisions.

  • Sandy

    A comment Cathy made is, I think, the most relevant part of this whole deal. Just shut up and let me eat what I want to eat, when I want it. The “epidemic” of obesity is, really, hurting no one except the obese. I’ve heard the argument “teach kids to eat healthier, they’ll grow up to eat healthily”. Well, I had such stuff pounded into me as a child and I hated it. And I determined that if changing my eating habits to extend my life was necessary … well, nobody is going to get out of this alive anyway! Being born, people, is hazardous to your health! Everybody born today is going to die someday. Don’t you dare take away my whole milk–in a carton, not plastic! And as for the cream in my coffee, trying to take that away from me will be hazardous to your health. My husband drinks chocolate milk; Land O’ Lakes recently discountinued the 2% version. Now my husband adds cream to it–and prob ably brings it up to more fat content than whole milk. If Land O’ Lakes hadn’t caved in to Michelle Obama, my husband would still be drinking the 2% stuff. So tell the politicians and the “do-gooders” to just butt out! It’s our lives, let us live it the way we want to. Incidentally, neither of us are obese, and in my case, my doctor tells me 165 is not overweight for a 5’7″ body.

  • floodmouse

    @ Sandy: I drink whole milk and love it. I get it from a local farmer straight from the goat. I eat chocolate too. No problem with eating your favorite foods as part of a healthy diet. Food should be fun.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar