No Magic Pill

Knowledge + effort + time = success

Guiding Stars

Posted by Ben on Monday, July 28, 2008

I swear I had no intentions of writing another post for a few days. Promise. Scout’s honor (too bad I wasn’t a Scout). It’s not even 6am on Monday morning as I start this, but leave it to morning TV to prep my soapbox (in my defense, I have to monitor morning news programs as part of my current work, which starts just before 5am—yes, please shoot me).

The object of my ire this morning is Guiding Stars. This is the first I’d heard of them (being a Monday, it would make sense to start the ads now), and I guess some long-running insomnia is catching up with me because I was ready to put my coffee mug through the TV screen (after finishing the coffee, of course). In the commercial—dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, of course—we’re told that grocery shopping just got easier. All we have to do is look for products labeled with one (good), two (better), or three (best) stars to gauge a food’s nutritional value. My first reaction was: so we’re too stupid to read nutritional labels? Okay, fine, I’ll grant you that those labels are increasingly complex and wholly misleading, playing on the lack of education and/or income for a lot of the customers in the stores (initially) using this metric (hey, don’t hate, that’s just the facts of the matter). My second reaction was: what’s it saying that the government’s nutritional authorities admit these complexities and, instead of standardizing labels, instead choose to create a visual system to “guide” people toward better food choices? Are we generally more illiterate and uneducated, or are we generally less English-proficient, or both? I’ll leave that argument for another time and place, but suffice to say that I’m not exactly feeling this to be the Second Coming.

First, let’s take a look at the advisory panel. Looks pretty educated and accomplished, no? Well, that’s because they are. Just look at all those letters after the names. Without knowing any of these people and instead going on my own overwhelming skepticism, let me say a couple things:

1. Letters don’t mean jack. Sure, it means you’ve passed some tests at some sort of subjective proficiency (based on the accrediting institution), but that doesn’t necessarily translate to reality. For example, you’re familiar with my opinion on the vast majority of personal trainers. Technically, they all have “letters” or certifications—this is in no way an indication of their ability to create and personalize training and nutritional programs for their clients. Instead, it only says that they can take a test to the satisfaction of some entity (often just the gym where they work). Consider this: I have “letters.” Seriously. Graduate from college, and you get “letters.” In my case, I have B.A. and M.A. after my name (I can convincingly argue that both should be B.S.), but they only mean that I put in some time and demonstrated some level of subjective aptitude, not that I know what I’m talking about, which I usually don’t.

2. On a related note, see those “R.D.” letters? That means “registered dietician.” Registered by whom? Again, who knows, but generally speaking, their nutritional education is based on US government guidelines, which as I’ve opined before, have had a devastating effect on our society’s mindset toward proper diet. Now, just like having letters doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing, there are exceptions where people overcome standardization and actually learn more and think for themselves and keep up with the latest research. I may even know an R.D. or two who’ve done that, but by and large, most I’ve heard of work for LA Weight Loss and Jenny Craig. I am SO not going down that path right now…

3. Note the asterisk denoting what “international health organizations” are involved: US Food and Drug Administration, US Department of Agriculture, US Health & Human Services, National Academies of Science, World Health Organization. Sweet, more government oversight. I know I’ll sleep better tonight.

Okay, so what? Maybe, just maybe, this system is legit. Let’s look at how they determine which foods are healthier than others (enable JavaScript in your browser to see the pop-out window). Here’s how it breaks down:

—Fat is bad.
—Cholesterol is bad.
—Sugar is bad.
—Fiber is good.
—Vitamins and minerals are good.
—Protein is insignificant.

*ahem* You might want to cover the kids’ ears for a second…


In short, yes, but then, we’re living longer lives, right? Wrong. We’re enjoying healthier lifestyles in that longevity, right? Wrong. But, just look at the benefits of Guiding Stars, printed right there on the website:

—It’s easy – you can see at-a-glance how similar products rank for nutritional value (read: you don’t have to be literate to any degree).
—It’s fun – even kids can use Guiding Stars to pick out more nutritious options (read: you’re stupid and easily entertained at any age).
—It’s fast – less time studying labels – we’ve done the work for you (read: go ahead and be lazy because GovCo is here to serve YOU).
—It’s good for you – ratings help you make better nutrition choices for you and your family (read: see any of the above comments).
—It’s grounded in science – the program reflects the most current nutritional guidelines from the FDA and the USDA (read: just forget the last few decades of government-backed recommendations that have had a huge hand in hiking the heft of our nation, even though these suggestions are the same thing a different, shinier wrapper).
—It’s fair – Guiding Stars rates foods with the same formula, regardless of brand, price or manufacturer (read: pay no attention to the fact that this system is being rolled out to lower-income consumers first).

Do I really need to say anything else? Please, even though it’s your tax dollars paying for this spewage, don’t let them patronize your intelligence. Just pay attention, use your noodle, and do what you know is best for you and yours, and watch out for those weekends.

—More on how exercise may slow/prevent brain atrophy linked to Alzheimer’s.
—Childhood statins is a firestorm topic, but that doesn’t mean kids aren’t already taking adult drugs for obesity-related conditions.

—If the above rant wasn’t enough to get you going, Craig offers seven ways to get motivated for your workout.
—Speaking of that last link, congrats to Kevin Larabee (host of The FitCast podcast). After a brief tryst to the West Coast to pursue a career in the video game industry (creating, not just playing), he decided to return to his fitness experience back east.
—Happy National Salad Week!
—Coach Steer provides a good analogy for why buying local and/or organic does a body (and mind) good.
—Alwyn had his “carpe diem” day over the weekend (this is a good place to plug a related project).
—Vanity trumps health when it comes to skin care (if you can pay, of course).
—Pregnancy may convince some smokers to quit, but really, why not do it for yourself first (or maybe, oh I dunno, not start at all)? It’s your choice, of course. (I can hear the analogical logic now: I want to quit smoking, so let’s have a kid! I want more government cheese, so let’s have a(nother) kid!)
—You’ve heard of the Humane Genome Project. Now get ready for the hyper-personalized version.
—This week is NASA’s 50th anniversary, so here are some pictorials in mini geek-out fashion: extraterrestrial vehicles, spacesuits, big goofs.
—Geek-out: biological body armor, Model-T hacking, nukes may not be the best way to save the planet, happy belated birthday to Stanley Kubrick, MP3s will not die (yet), mixed-use development demand is still strong.

Last time, I spent some time talking about regeneration and restoration. This time, Philip Walter puts some better-quality meat behind the idea.
—“Grinding” is idiotic and monotonous, but at least it promises progress (note: don’t bail when you see this is an article about a video game—look beyond—and no, I’ve never played World of Warcraft, but I can relate to the concept).


4 Responses to “Guiding Stars”

  1. Tammy said

    Guiding Stars is nowhere near as good as another nutrition program called NuVal (as in Nutrient Value)… it scores foods from 1 to 100, the higher the number the more nutritious. Its much better than just a three-star system, which doesn’t tell you much about the food. NuVal will also be in grocery stores later this year.
    You should check it out:

  2. Ben said

    In lieu of deleting this as possible spam (since I can’t accurately determine if it is or not), let me instead quote from the website you linked:

    “What factors contribute to how a food’s nutrition quality is scored?
    —The science behind the ONQI is as sophisticated as the tool is simple to use. The ONQI is based on a novel, patent-pending concept which defines the nutritional quality of foods based on the influence they have on overall dietary goals. The ONQI answers the questions: How does the concentration of a given nutrient in a given food compare to the recommended concentration of that nutrient in the diet overall? How, therefore, does consumption of a given food influence the recommended daily intake levels for an array of nutrients? Factors considered in developing ONQI include: fiber; folate; vitamins A, C, D, E, B12, B6; potassium; calcium; zinc; omega 3 fatty acids; bioflavanoids; carotenoids; magnesium; iron; saturated fat; trans fat; sodium; sugar; cholesterol; fat quality; protein quality; energy density and glycemic load.”

    Okay, so where you getting your “recommended concentration” from, and based on what “diet overall”? At least it does take protein into consideration, though “protein quality” is highly subjective depending on who’s doing the figuring, and isn’t “energy density” simply the caloric load? Hmmm…

    “What scientific criteria were used to create the ONQI?
    —The basic formula is based on the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs); Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Nutrition Facts Panel; US Department of Agriculture (USDA) MyPyramid; the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005; and relevant international standards.”

    Really? They admit this? Sounds like many of the same “international standards” used by Guiding Stars.

    “How did you determine which nutrients to include in the index?
    —Nutrients for inclusion in the ONQI were selected based on their established relevance to public health.”

    Established by whom, and based on what relevance? Oh yeah, my last point answered that. Sorry, looks like this is just another misguided (yet probably profitable) attempt to use a cookie-cutter model for personalized nutrition, but thanks for playing.

  3. Lori said

    I’m just finding your blog from a post at JP… I’ve got to say I’m impressed with the obvious amount of time and thought you put into your posts. Makes my family life drivel look pretty lame LOL.

    The Guiding Stars are BIG around here (Maine). My best friend works for the company that developed them and it’s unbelievable the amount of positive press, etc. that they’ve received. Honestly, I don’t shop at Hannaford all that often, but when I do, I go by what I know… not by the guiding stars info, which in my opinion is pretty simplistic. I think it targets people who generally don’t have much of a clue about nutrition and want someone else to do the thinking for them… not always a good thing.

    Thanks for the interesting read… I’ll definitely be checking back!

  4. Ben said

    Don’t poo-poo the family life if you’re happy with it. For me, it’s all about simplicity, which is why I’ve dropped a couple side jobs recently (less income but still paying the bills with much less headache). It’s all about what works for you :)

    As for GS, of course there’s no bad press because it’s (a) government-sponsored, if I understand the sources correctly, and (b) for the good of the people, namely those too ignorant–for whatever reason–to take care of themselves. Decline and fall of the Roman Empire, indeed. I’m interested in what your friend has to say about the metric, especially in how it was developed and, more especially, how much was spent on R&D versus marketing.

    Thanks for stopping by. I’ll have punch and pie ready next time!

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