One of things we try to do at the Pundit is give a “heads up” on things that may wind up being important. For example, on September 12, 2006, just as Hannaford Bros. launched its Hannaford Guiding Stars program, we ran a piece pointing it out to the trade. For example we pointed out:
Hannaford has launched an exceedingly ambitious program to rank the nutritional merit of almost the whole supermarket with a one-star, two-star or three-star system. It is a good, better, best program and, implicitly, leaves a lot of products at zero stars.
Now, The New York Times picked up on the story eight weeks later and ran a front page story on the program. The focus:
Of the 27,000 products that were plugged into Hannaford’s formula, 77 percent received no stars, including many, if not most, of the processed foods that advertise themselves as good for you.
The program is interesting because it takes random information — this product is low-fat, this is low-sugar, this is high-protein — and tries to systematize it into useful information about food.
In the end, it is also problematic for the same reasons all ranking programs are problematic:
Individuals have different nutritional issues. Many of the packaged products that promote themselves as healthy received zero stars. Often, the reason for the low ranking was excessive sodium.
But for a healthy person with a good body mass index, no family history or evidence of high blood pressure, there is no reason he can’t enjoy a V-8 juice if he wants to. Even drinking it frequently.
A person with high blood pressure, on the other hand, will be advised to lay off the salt.
The fact that different people have different nutritional issues makes all broad-brush rankings problematic.
Even if a consumer has a particular need, such as limiting salt or fat, what matters is not any individual food, but the total diet. Nutritionists repeat like a mantra that there are no good foods or bad foods only good diets or bad diets.
So, even if you want to keep total fat in your diet under, say 30% of calories, you don’t have to keep each individual product under that ratio.
A consumer can balance an occasional piece of birthday cake with snacking on celery sticks.
In some ways the measurement of all foods against each other is less helpful than measuring foods within a class. We all know if we are going to bring a cake to a party that the cake is not the healthiest option. But we are electing to bring an indulgence.
We might favor a carrot cake over a chocolate cake if we thought it was easier on the waistline or had some nutritional advantage, but to just say that all cakes get zero stars and all platters of celery sticks get three stars is probably not going to change the mind of too many gift-givers.
Exercise or calorie expenditure is a big issue. Many of the products without stars rank that way because they can contribute to obesity, not because they are “bad” in some other way. But if you are fit and exercise off the excess calories, there may be no deleterious effects to these foods.
My father has a weakness for cheesecake but used to exercise vigorously on his cross-country ski machine. He would look at a sliver of cake, calculate two hours of exercise as the price to pay and make a decision. You can do the crime if you are willing to pay the time.