SCARBOROUGH, MAINE — Guiding Stars Licensing Co., the operating company for the increasingly successful and influential nutrition-rating system, has signed a letter of intent with King’s Supermarkets, based in New Jersey, to install the Guiding Stars program in King’s stores, has learned.

John Eldredge, director of brand and business development for Guiding Stars Licensing, said it is the first time that Guiding Stars, which originated in Hannaford supermarkets in September of 2006, will appear in a supermarket chain outside of chains owned by the Delhaize Group. Other Delhaize chains that use Guiding Stars besides Hannaford include the 107-store Sweet Bay chain in Florida and the 1,200-store Food Lion chain along the Atlantic Seaboard. Hannaford operates more than 150 stores in New England.

"It’s a very significant development for us," he told

Based on an algorithm, the system assigns values for a variety of elements found on the Nutrition Facts label and ingredient list. For foods that are not labeled, like meat, fruits, seafood, and vegetables, the system applies information from U.S.D.A.’s national nutrient database. A consistent unit of 100 calories is used to make comparisons across foods. Foods are credited for vitamins and minerals, dietary fiber and whole grains and debited for trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, added sugars and added sodium. In sum, the more nutrients in a food per calorie, the higher number of stars the food is assigned. To provide a frame of reference, whole milk receives no stars; 2% milk receives one star and skim milk is assigned three stars. The algorithm is slightly modified for meat, dairy and nut products, which naturally include more saturated fat than other foods, and since meat and poultry products naturally contain no fiber they aren’t debited for that fact.

Eldredge said the system has revealed a few surprises. Canned and frozen vegetables without any added sodium, for example, rate as high as fresh vegetables. Meat and poultry processors are beginning to cut back on the sodium in some product formulas to score better under Guiding Stars. ""Star-rated foods tend to move faster than non-star foods," he commented, "and in terms of shopping habits, the biggest threshold that we’ve seen is people moving from no-star products to one-star products."

He added: "One of the things I’ve learned is that there are a lot of innovation opportunities in food formulating. There are some very interesting and creative ways to produce nutritious foods that taste good."

Every edible food sold in a supermarket, with the exception of certain beverages that have fewer than five calories per serving, is measured by the Guiding Stars algorithm, falling into a basic good, better, best ranking, although about 72 percent of foods receive the lowest ranking – no star at all. Approximately 21 percent of all meat products receive at least one star, compared to a mere seven percent of soup products ("it’s all the sodium in most soups," said Eldredge). Unsurprisingly, all fresh fruits and vegetables receive at least one star and more than half of cereals do. While 41 percent of breads and rolls rate a star, overall just seven percent of products in the bakery category rate a star. More than 40 percent of seafood rates a star or better. Guiding Stars also gives its star ratings (and no-star ratings) to participating high-school cafeterias and college dining halls.

Eldredge believes the success of Guiding Stars is its simplicity for shoppers. "It’s been observed that consumers a) don’t understand nutrition labeling as it appears on most food products, and b) don’t have the time to read those labels," he told The star system greatly eases the chore for shoppers who want to buy healthier, more nutritious foods.

Guiding Stars was developed by a scientific advisory panel of nutrition experts from Harvard University, Dartmouth College Medical School, the University of North Carolina, Tufts University, the University of California - Davis, and the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. In addition, research and information was drawn from U.S.D.A., the Food and Drug Administration, the National Academies of Science and the World Health Organization. Eldredge said that as new nutrition information becomes available through the peer-review process, "the algorithm will be adjusted accordingly. It’s a living, breathing system."