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Grocers Launch Labels to Identify Healthy Foods

By TIMOTHY W. MARTIN

Northeast grocery chains Stop & Shop and Giant Food are unveiling a product-labeling system designed to help customers find their stores' healthiest foods.

The "Healthy Ideas" system will distinguish more than 3,000 of the stores' products and fresh produce with a bright green-and-blue symbol signifying they meet U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal guidelines defining what makes a food healthy. That represents about 10% of the store's total inventory and includes items ranging from dairy products to pancake mix to frozen Brussels sprouts.

As the nation's obesity and diabetes problems have become more serious, supermarkets hope that health-conscious consumers will increasingly look toward supermarkets to help them balance their diet. "Customers are looking for help," says Andrea Astrachan, Stop & Shop's vice president of consumer affairs.

Seeking to Simplify

Healthy Ideas is one of several new food-labeling programs that attempt to simplify the identification of nutritious foods. The more-detailed nutritional labels required by the Food and Drug Administration have confused some consumers who might not be able to parse the differences between the benefits and drawbacks of reduced fat versus reduced sodium. And not everyone agrees on what makes a food healthy, leading to criticism of the programs over which items get included.

The new programs try to distinguish which products in a given category -- cookies, for instance -- are healthier than others in that category. "Not all cookies are created equal," says David L. Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center.

One new program, NuVal, developed by a team of nutrition and public health experts, led by Dr. Katz, was launched in two grocery chains, Price Chopper, based in Rotterdam, N.Y., and Hy-Vee, based in Des Moines, Iowa, this fall. The system rates more than 45,000 products on a 1-to-100 scale, with 100 being healthiest.

Food manufacturers, including Kraft Foods Inc., PepsiCo Inc. and Unilever PLC, are working with nutritionists on another program to add a "Smart Choices" label to certain products in a program scheduled to launch this summer.

"The majority of consumers feel there is information overload," said Burt P. Flickinger, managing director of the Strategic Resource Group, a consulting firm in New York. Mr. Flickinger said a minority of shoppers, mostly women with children, are seeking more nutritional information, and the labeling may appeal to them.

One of the first such labeling programs, called Guiding Stars, was launched by Hannaford Bros. Co., based in Scarborough, Maine, and a subsidiary of the Belgian Delhaize Group, in September 2006. It ranks more than 25,000 products in a three-star system of good, better and best, while other products weren't ranked at all. Hannaford said products that received stars saw an increase in sales.

But the program came under criticism because some unranked products were seen as healthy by others. V8 vegetable juice, for example, is endorsed by the American Heart Association, but Hannaford didn't rank it because it had too much sodium.

The new program at Stop & Shop and Giant Food, sister chains owned by Netherlands-based Royal Ahold NV, came about because consumers said they wanted something to be a sole source for determining whether one food item is healthier than another, Ms. Astrachan said.

Good Nutrient Source

Products in the chains' 561 stores that carry the Healthy Ideas symbol have less fat or cholesterol than other products in their category and include at least one good nutrient source such as fiber, protein or calcium, Stop & Shop says. The company says Healthy Ideas wasn't created to help consumers lose weight or elevate one product over another, but rather to highlight the items that meet or exceed federal guidelines for healthy food.

Still, consumers shouldn't fall into the trap of buying any item with a label on it and assuming it is healthy, says Jeff Stier, associate director at the American Council on Science and Health, a consumer group based in New York. Portion control and reading the nutritional label, he says, are still the most important things to determine a food's health.

"Even if you see a big bag of chips with a label on it, that doesn't mean you can go crazy," Mr. Stier says.

Write to Timothy W. Martin at timothy.martin@wsj.com