Nutritional rating system raises awareness in UNH dining halls

Monday, July 24, 2017
UNH students eating in Holloway Commons

The Guiding Stars nutritional rating system, which educates consumers about food options, has had a positive effect on raising awareness about healthy food choices available at UNH, according to new research funded by the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station.

“Our work looked to examine the impact of Guiding Stars — a simplified nutrition rating system — on customers’ perceptions of the availability of healthy food options. We surveyed customers before and after the addition of Guiding Stars in two dining venues: food court and café-style,” says Jesse Stabile Morrell, principal lecturer and undergraduate program coordinator in nutrition at UNH. “Many of us are looking to make changes that will support health and well-being. Food selection — whether it be at a grocery store, vending machine, dining hall or restaurant — can be overwhelming to people. This work suggests that a simplified rating system like Guiding Stars influences people's perceptions of the availability of healthy foods and the factors that dictate their choice. Eating establishments may find this helpful when they design menus or display information to customers who are increasingly looking for food options that support their health goals."

Morrell, Gale Carey, professor emeritus of nutrition, and Rochelle L’Italien, dietitian with UNH Dining Services, conducted the research. Their results are presented in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior in Guiding Stars Influences Perception of Healthy Food Choices at a 4-Year University.

guiding stars sign at the UNH Dairy Bar

“Our work showed that the addition of Guiding Stars changed patrons’ perceptions over time regarding the availability of healthy food choices. In addition, in a food-court setting customers more often felt that Guiding Stars influenced their food selection vs. prior to the addition of the rating system,” Morrell says.

Specifically, the researchers found that after implementation of Guiding Stars at the centrally located Union Court, respondents more often reported that posted nutrition-information and specifically Guiding Stars had influenced their food selections. Further, the percentage of respondents who thought healthy foods were always or mostly available increased from 34 percent prior to implementation to 53 percent seven months after adding the Guiding Stars rating system.

UNH was one of the first schools in the nation to partner with Guiding Stars to supplement nutritional labeling to encourage healthier eating by students. The Guiding Stars rating system, which was introduced into the dining halls at UNH in the 2009-2010 academic year, identifies key information, such as calories, grams of fat and grams of carbohydrates, and provides one of the most complete, simple-to-use nutritional guidance programs available today. 

The program is based on an extensive database that rates and indexes each prepared item and pre-packaged product based on the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans and other national evidence-based nutrition policies. Each item that earns a star based on certain nutrition criteria is then labeled with the star value on a corresponding tag, sticker or other signage that indicates its nutritional value: One Guiding Star is good; two Guiding Stars is better; and three Guiding Stars is best. Foods that receive no stars do not meet the program’s rigorous criteria.

“We aim to broaden our understanding of the environmental and behavioral factors that influence healthy behaviors, particularly those that influence unhealthy weight gain,” Morrell said. “Poor diets and weight gain adversely affects health, and targeted research is needed to increase understanding of the interaction between individual and environmental factors associated with this adverse outcome.”

New Hampshire has the 14th-lowest adult obesity rate in the nation, according to The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, released in September 2016. New Hampshire's adult obesity rate is currently 26.3 percent, up from 16.1 percent in 2000 and from 9.9 percent in 1990.

This material is based upon work supported by the NH Agricultural Experiment Station, through joint funding of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 0231219, and the state of New Hampshire. This research also was supported by UNH Dining Services.

Jeremy Gasowski | UNH Marketing | | 603-862-4465