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For Release: February 16, 2010
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Thought for food: DMS researcher, colleagues trace consumer tool's impact

Lisa Sutherland, Ph.D.

Lebanon, N.H.—Dartmouth Medical School (DMS) researcher Lisa Sutherland, Ph.D., and a team of fellow nutrition scientists are reporting evidence that grocery shoppers are changing their buying habits thanks to a nutrition rating system that Sutherland helped develop in 2006.

The research, published online in the current issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, comes fresh off the publication - in the journal Pediatrics - of a study linking food-product placement in movies with the buying and eating habits of youths. The new study describes how increasing numbers of consumers are buying food using the "Guiding Stars" tool, which assigns at-a-glance ratings of between zero and three stars on food labels.

"With increasing rates of chronic disease and poor diet quality in the United States, we were pleased to find that the Guiding Stars program was associated with significant positive changes in consumer purchasing behavior," says lead author Sutherland, an assistant professor of pediatrics at DMS. "The choices consumers make in the supermarket can have a direct effect on their health and wellness, and we found that after the Guiding Stars nutrition-navigation program was implemented, the overall purchasing of food with stars, or those rated the most nutritious, significantly increased. With time as a significant barrier for many Americans when shopping, we believe that the program makes it easier for consumers to quickly identify the more nutritious options in the supermarket."

Sutherland, who conducts her research under the auspices of the Hood Center for Children and Families at DMS, collaborated on the study with two fellow members of the Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel - Leslie Fischer, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina's Gillings School of Global Public Health, and Lori Kaley, Ph.D., of the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.

The idea of providing a way for shoppers to choose food, based on nutrition for the calories, grew out of extensive customer research. The studies found that while consumers want to live healthier lives, they express confusion about how to digest the volume and complexity of the nutrition-related information in the media, in advertisements and on food packaging.

Guiding Stars rates all edible products in the store - regardless of price, brand, or manufacturer - and follows an evidence-based formula grounded in the most current dietary guidelines and recommendations of organizations ranging from the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Health & Human Services. The more nutritional value a food or beverage contains, the more Guiding Stars it receives on a scale of zero to three. One Guiding Star indicates good nutritional value; two Guiding Stars, better nutritional value; three Guiding Stars, the best nutritional value.

The authors analyzed purchasing data from 2006 to 2008, obtained from Hannaford's, a supermarket chain with 168 stores located in northern New England and New York. To understand the impact of the program on specific categories of groceries, they examined ready-to-eat cereal as a case study - and found that shoppers bought much more star-rated cereal after one year and continued buying more in year two.

"Although we did not measure individual diet, the purchasing of low-sugar, high-fiber cereals significantly increased after program implementation," Sutherland says. "This finding is of particular importance to our understanding the potential impact of such programs on consumer diet."

In addition to offering the rating service at Hannaford and other chains - covering more than 1,500 supermarkets - Guiding Stars has also launched the first nutrition rating system at a public school in Topsham, Maine, as well as at the dining halls and convenience stores of the University of New Hampshire and of Maine's Bates College. Another is underway on the Shopper iPhone application. Additional information is available at

Read more about Sutherland's research here.


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