My local grocery store is tagging certain foods to show nutritional information and how healthy they are. What's behind these grocery store nutrition rating systems?

Answers from Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D.

Some grocery stores and food manufacturers are creating their own nutrition rating systems and labels to highlight what they say are healthy options for consumers. These nutrition rating systems — which appear on the grocery shelf or on food packages themselves — use symbols, scores or colors to indicate how a product rates in terms of calories, fiber, fat, sodium and other nutrients. Each nutrition rating system uses different criteria, which may include federal dietary guidelines or input from dietitians.

But these labeling systems have become controversial. Sometimes called front of package labels, shelf labels or shelf tags, they are raising the eyebrows of consumer groups and agencies that contend they may be misleading — for instance, a high-sugar cereal was rated healthy. Some of the companies behind the labels have become the subject of lawsuits and state investigations.

These voluntary nutrition rating systems are different from the Nutrition Facts label required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on most prepared foods. While the FDA Nutrition Facts label lists amounts of certain nutrients for an item, the grocery store nutrition rating systems judge the nutritional value of products.

The FDA doesn't currently regulate grocery store nutrition rating systems. These rating systems aren't standardized, and it's not always clear how their health ratings are determined. But because of the growing controversy, the FDA may set standards for this kind of labeling.

What can you do in the meantime? Don't rely solely on grocery store nutrition rating systems for your nutrition information. Read the Nutrition Facts label and other nutrition information to help you make wise choices.

Some of the new nutrition rating systems and labels include:

  • Guiding Stars. This system, developed by Hannaford Supermarkets, uses one, two or three stars to represent good, better and best nutritional value.
  • Healthy Ideas. This system, developed by Giant Food and Stop & Shop, uses the Healthy Ideas logo on products they deem healthy.
  • Nutrition iQ. This system, developed for the SuperValu chain of stores, uses colored bars to highlight an item's main nutritional benefits.
  • NuVal. This system, developed for Price Chopper and Hy-Vee stores, rates products from 1 to 100, with higher scores signaling greater nutritional value.
  • Smart Choices. This system, developed by a coalition of food companies and health professionals, was available for use by any food manufacturer or retailer for a fee. The program has been suspended because of the ratings controversy.

If all these nutrition rating systems and labels leave you confused, talk to your dietitian or doctor for guidance.

Jan. 05, 2010