How Does Guiding Stars Define “Nutritious”?

Woman shopping

You probably know that Guiding Stars is all about healthy, nutritious food. Follow the Guiding Stars signage throughout the store. Choosing mostly items that earn stars. You’ll automatically and easily end up with a cart full of nutritious food. You might be wondering exactly what we mean by “nutritious,” though, so here’s a little background on Guiding Stars defines the word.

The algorithms lead the way.

The patented Guiding Stars algorithms are the rules by which it’s determined which foods get stars—and how many stars each food earns. The four separate algorithms evaluate foods in different general food categories. They use nutritional standards that the Scientific Advisory Panel has approved. These standards reflect current dietary recommendations, nutrition policy. and scientific consensus. They rely on documents such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. As nutrition science evolves and food label regulations are updated, the Scientific Advisory Panel considers the impacts on the algorithms. We make adjustments to the algorithms as necessary to stay current. The nutrients and ingredients that are evaluated in the algorithms include:

Whole Grains
Saturated Fat
Trans Fat
Added Sodium
Added Sugars
Additives to Limit

Foods receive credits for some nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as for whole grains and fiber. The presence of the other ingredients on the list results in debits to a food’s score in the algorithms. A food’s final score determines how many Guiding Stars it will receive. Although most edible foods in the store are evaluated,* not every food earns stars. The algorithms are intentionally quite discriminating. In general, if you don’t see the Guiding Star icon on the food or shelf tag or signage, it means the item doesn’t earn a star.

*These are not rated: foods that have 5 calories or less/serving, medical foods, vitamins and supplements, and infant formula.

Here’s a closer look at what might make a food more (or less) nutritious.

The credit and debit scoring method that Guiding Stars uses is tied to the general scientific consensus that, for general good health, certain food components and ingredients should be consumed more often, and others, less often. This in itself is not ground breaking news, of course. In the interest of letting the public see the “inner workings” of the Guiding Stars system, however, I want to give you a peek at what guides us with regard to some ingredients’ impacts on nutritional qualities of food products. 

Added Sugars

Now that updated Nutrition Facts food label has been widely implemented, it’s much easier for consumers to see how the amount of added sugars in food products. Hooray! Added sugar provides only carbohydrate and calories, but no other nutrients. There is a lot of research showing that a diet that contains lots of added sugars (not the naturally-present sugars found in fruit and milk), negatively impacts our health. Higher intakes of added sugars interrupt our ability to learn, contribute to a greater risk of dying from heart disease, lead to more cavities and tooth decay, and may lead to higher body weight.

Guiding Stars uses guidance from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as well as the World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine to assign debits for varying levels of added sugars. The ideal is no added sugar. Any food that gets over 40% of its calories from added sugars is disqualified from earning a star rating, regardless of the presence of positive nutrients in the product. (By the way, the algorithms do not penalize for naturally present sugars, such as those in milk. Any debits are triggered by keywords in ingredient lists that signal the presence of added sugars.)

Bottom line: High amounts of added sugars equals a less nutritious product overall. 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

As more and more foods on the shelves contain omega-3 fatty acids (including DHA and/or EPA), the algorithms were updated to more broadly give credit for these beneficial fats across multiple algorithms. Omega-3s have documented anti-inflammatory and disease-fighting properties. They have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease deaths. Studies also suggest they may be helpful in treating high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, macular degeneration, and cancer.

The Guiding Stars fats and oils algorithm is the only one that specifically gives credits for monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) in a product. MUFAs are a type of unsaturated fat. Although they can be found in animal products, our algorithm gives credit to plant oils that contain it, such as olive and avocado oils. The oils with higher percentages of MUFAs receive more credits, which may then increase their “star power.” 

Bottom line: Foods and oils that contain higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, or oils that have higher amounts of MUFAs equals a more nutritious product.

Artificial Colors & Dyes

Growing scientific evidence indicates that artificial colors and dyes may cause or exacerbate negative behavioral outcomes in sensitive children. The debit for these colorings in a food product aligns with policy in Europe. It also reflects growing consumer and manufacturer interest in foods without these artificial ingredients.

Bottom line: Abundant, and safer coloring alternatives exist. We encourage their use. The more artificial colorings in a product, the less nutritious we consider it.

Fiber & Whole Grains

Guiding Stars loves fiber—especially when it comes from whole food sources. (Check out this post for background on carbs and fiber.) The algorithm for general foods assigns credits based on the amount of dietary fiber in a food. It gives more points for higher fiber levels. There is also a bonus point if a food product includes whole grains. Most Americans lack the recommended amounts of fiber, which is 25g/day for women and 38g/day for men. Fiber keeps the digestive system running well. It can also help lower cholesterol and keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range.

Whole grain foods provide more fiber because they are less processed. They also tend to come “packaged” with nutrients that are stripped from processed grains. Studies show that consuming more whole grains is associated with positive health outcomes, like a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Bottom line: Foods that contain whole grains and/or provide more fiber tend to be more nutritious than more highly processed foods that lack these components.