Sweetbay shines light on its nutritional stars

The Tampa chain's new Guiding Stars program is designed to help simplify labels.

Published March 27, 2007

If comparing the fine print on nutritional food labels gives you migraines, Sweetbay Supermarket has a big short cut for you.

The Tampa-based chain on Wednesday deployed simple rating labels for thousands of products that meet the chain's formula defining foods as "nutritious." Created by a panel of academic health professionals, the trademarked formula uses government agency nutritional label rules rendered to a standard 100-calorie serving.

"People don't have the time to read all those food labels," said Sarah Krieger, a St. Petersburg dietitian hired to make presentations introducing Sweetbay's Guiding Stars program to the medical community. "This is a simple tool that puts it right there on the shelf."

With obesity now part of the national health debate, grocers are looking for ways to be advocates of healthier eating. A few months ago, Publix Super Markets Inc. added key abbreviated nutritional benefits and special dietary features of certain groceries, dairy products and meats to shelf tags.

At Sweetbay, the most revealing fact is that in overweight America today, only 6,000 of the 27,000 foods found in a typical supermarket were nutritious enough to garner a rating. Sweetbay makes no attempt to rate baby food because infants have different nutritional needs. Beer and wine also are not rated.

The ratings are one, two or three stars. They stand for good, better or the best combination of nutritional virtues. Foods get bonus points for dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and whole grains. Points are subtracted for saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol and added sodium or sugars.

"The best-rated foods typically are fresh and go down the more they are processed," said Steve Smith, the chain's vice president of merchandising. "But frozen vegetables fare very well."

While 94 percent of the produce department and 55 percent of the cereals were nutritious enough to be rated, only 8 percent of the deli and 5 percent of the bakery were.

Of 300 selections of Sweetbay's On The Go Bistro frozen entrees, only one was nutritious enough to get a rating.

There are some real head-scratchers. For instance, Campbell's Healthy Request soups pack too much sodium to get a star. Some organic soy milks had too much sugar to be rated nutritious. Kellogg's Cocoa Krispies got one star, Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal merited two stars, but Special K didn't even get one.

Stores will be outfitted with brochures and educational displays. There's an explanation at sweetbaysupermarket.com and questions are answered toll-free at 1-888-218-3890.

Sweetbay says it's not making any health claims. The ratings don't relate to foods that might be part of a weight-loss or special diet.

Sweetbay, which developed the program in concert with its corporate sibling Hannaford Bros. in New England, plans to market Guiding Stars as a point of differentiation that enhances its image as an advocate of better eating.

Research found 84 percent of shoppers willing to use such a rating system. Hannaford, which debuted the program in September, found unit sales of rated items rose 10 to 15 percent after the labels appeared.

While some food suppliers protested that products they market as healthy were not rated, Sweetbay only suggests changing the product.

"We told them our ratings are not for sale," Smith said.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727893-8252.


Seeing stars Examples of Sweetbay's nutrition ratings

ONE STAR: Honey Nut Cheerios

TWO STARS: Breyers Light Yogurt

THREE STARS: Hannaford brand broccoli