Learn to decipher supermarket shelf nutrition labels

Learn to decipher supermarket shelf nutrition labels

By Barbara Ruhs, M.S., R.D., Environmental Nutrition Newsletter

Supermarkets across the country now offer shelf nutrition labeling programs, which can help shoppers more easily identify the best food choices. Such programs vary by retailer: Some identify specific product nutrition attributes, such as “low sodium,” while others feature a rating depicted by stars or a score.

These labels go beyond front-of-package nutrition labels implemented by food manufacturers; they’re placed directly at the point of purchase, on the store shelf adjacent to the price tag, for optimal assistance. This week, EN helps you navigate these shelf label systems for better understanding–and smarter food choices.

Supermarket shelf nutrition labels provide nutritional ratings or scores for food products that can lead to better food choices in the supermarket aisle.


Point-of-purchase shelf nutrition labels are considered an extension of the Nutrition Facts food label panel, and must meet labeling guidelines set forth by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Any nutrient content claim, such as products that state they are a “good,” “free,” or “low” source of a nutrient, must meet the FDA’s standard definition. In addition, products making a health claim must use the FDA’s approved health claims, such as “calcium may reduce risk of osteoporosis,” and “diets low in sodium may reduce risk of high blood pressure” (see full listing of FDA approved health claims at http://1.usa.gov/1qFiIxo.)

TYPES OF NUTRITION SHELF TAGS: Most food products and categories within the supermarket are included in nutrition shelf labeling programs executed by supermarkets. Here’s a rundown of the various types of programs.

NUTRITION ATTRIBUTES: Many supermarkets identify nutrition attributes on products to help customers find healthier choices. These supermarket chains select nutrition attributes that are most meaningful to their customers, such as “low in saturated fat,” “low in sodium,” and “good source of whole grains.” In addition, many also include other lifestyle attributes, such as “gluten-free” and “organic.”

NUTRITION RATING SYSTEMS: Many supermarkets use nutrition rating systems to help their shoppers simplify the process of identifying healthier products. There are two main nationally-recognized nutrition rating systems found in U.S. supermarkets: Guiding Stars and NuVal. Scientific advisory boards were involved in the creation of both programs, without the involvement of the food industry or government.

These systems use evidence-based proprietary algorithms to rate products, taking into account USDA and FDA regulations, and data from the Institute of Medicine, World Health Organization, and National Academy of Sciences. Algorithms rate products based on the presence or absence of nutritional components found on the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list.

While positive nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and whole grains, can enhance a product’s score or rating, negative nutrients, such as saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars, and sodium (as well as the lack of positive nutrients), can lower a product’s score or rating.

GUIDNG STARS: This program (www.guidingstars.com) uses a varying number of stars (0-3) to help shoppers find good (1 star), better (2 stars,) and best (3 stars) nutritional choices. This program can be found in more than 1,500 stores nationwide, including Hannaford, Marsh, and Food Lion, to name a few.

Mary Snell, M.S., R.D., Director of Nutrition and Wellness Marketing for Marsh Supermarkets, LLC, in Indianapolis, IN, hosts nutrition tours to help shoppers learn about the program, but says, “Ultimately, the program is self-explanatory and extremely easy for shoppers to use.”

NUVAL. This nutritional scoring system (www.nuval.com) can be found in hundreds of stores, including Price Chopper, Hy-Vee, and Meijer. Using a 0-100 score, higher NuVal scores relate to higher nutritional value of the product.

Ellie Wilson, M.S., R.D., senior nutritionist for Price Chopper Supermarkets in New York, reports that the program is useful for a range of customers, including parents, children, and single shoppers, because it allows people to easily compare scores to look for the highest within a category.


A multitude of published research exists indicating both Guiding Stars and NuVal have a positive impact on consumers and their ability to make improved nutritional choices at the point of purchase.

A 2010 study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, indicated that a nutrition rating system like Guiding Stars(R) showed increases in purchasing of healthier food products immediately after the program was implemented in a supermarket chain, and continued to be effective one and two years later.

Furthermore, a Harvard study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine reported that the consumption of foods rated with a higher NuVal score was associated with a modestly lower risk of chronic disease and all causes of death.

Another benefit of nutrition rating systems: Food manufacturers have made nutritional improvements to their products in order to get better ratings. Ultimately, more nutrition information at the shelf empowers shoppers to make more informed decisions about what goes in their cart. And that’s a good thing.

(Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384. www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com.)