Director's Message: Tongue and Cheek with the Stars

Nov. 30, 2006
Food rating system at grocery store leaves disguised Red Sox fan wondering if dental services need to be dummied down.

How can we expect our patients to completely understand periodontal infection and the inflammatory process when they are "confused" about which foods are healthy and which are not?

In a Nov. 6 New York Times article titled, "The Package May Say Healthy, but This Grocer Begs to Differ," a New England food chain, (Hannaford Brothers, developed a way to help shoppers decide if a food item is healthy. Hannaford assembled a group of experts and created an algorithm that assigns up to three stars based on the nutrition labels of about 27,000 supermarket items. This newly developed system is called Guiding Stars. According to the Hannaford Web site, the ratings are proprietary, stating it "credits a food's score for vitamins, minerals, fiber and/or whole grains and debits a food's score for the presence of trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars, and added sodium."

What are the far-reaching effects of a food labeling system that trumps the FDA?

What this formula found, once it was applied to many foods labeled "healthy," is that these foods they failed the Guiding Star test. Hannaford's nutritionists, acknowledge that the guidelines are more confining than even the FDA. For example, Lisa Sutherland of Dartmouth Medical School and one of the expert panelists suggests, "nutrition claims on packages trumpet the benefits of a few attributes-high fiber, for instance, or no trans fat-while ignoring negatives like too much sodium. V8, for instance, which says it has 'essential antioxidants' and is 'vitamin rich' is like drinking a vitamin with a lot of salt."

Does anyone, think it odd, that a business would develop a healthy food system, when they are in control of which products actually go on the shelves? Plus, if you do your food shopping at Hannaford's, ultimately they determine the variety of items we can or cannot buy. And now, twinkle, twinkle, your purchases will be rated?

Is it just me or does it, at least on the surface appear, a little too jurisdictional? Plus, it will make grocery shopping yet another guilt-ridden chore of our daily lives. I personally don't want to shop in a store where my neighbors and friends — the other consumers — can decipher when I have PMS, having a party, starting a diet, or just plain need some comfort food. They can figure this out by the number of "Guiding Stars" in my cart.

Nor do I need the 16-year-old, pimple-faced, gum-chewing, iPod-wearing cashier to silently judge me or my parenting skills simply because my food items are 1 star vs. 3 stars. Way too much pressure will burden an already tedious nuisance. Food shopping is a weekly annoyance (if I'm lucky and don't forget something) more times than not. I don't even shower for food shopping and just wear my favorite Red Sox cap and sunglasses in the hope I don't run into a patient from the office or a nosy neighbor.

So this begs the question: If our patients don't even know which is healthier — an apple or processed applesauce — and they will follow the guidelines of a business that shelves the food items they label with the stars, then how are we going to be able to further demystify the concept that bleeding while brushing is not healthy?

Perhaps we need a dental manufacturer that can design a new classification system for periodontal diseases and treatment options. Oh, wait! That's been done! But with stars? Our profession has been counting the score with numbers such as 4, 5, and 10. Then we explain to the patient that they have x amount of healthy vs. y amount of diseased pockets or areas. The tallying of scores and figures requires math, huh? Next, we add Roman numerals for the classification, and the result is: patient confusion.

I challenge one of my astute readers to develop a disease classification system based on stars and constellations. For example, instead of writing detailed treatment notes, we can educate our patients on the severity of their disease based on hexagons. How about a few well-drawn meteor bursts that equals localized disease; the Little Dipper equals gingivitis; and the Big Dipper equals periodontal disease? The system can be called "Celestial Bodies for Health."

While I share my sarcasm and cynicism in this Director's Message, the reality is that we, as dental professionals, must continue to compete in a world that is dummying down the basics of information for the unknowing consumer. Does it still make sense to gear our educational efforts and treatment options to the 20% of our patients who actually value the research, a variety of upgraded treatment options or successful outcomes? Or should we abandon all that and work towards a system of "balls of gas burning billions of miles away?"

I don't have the answer, yet I am donning my Red Sox cap as I drive to my supermarket, Hannaford's, to buy some cream-filled cupcakes. I feel an eclipse coming on.

I appreciate and acknowledge that there are many pressures on your time. Thank you for continuing to read the RDH eVillage. We are striving daily to exceed your expectations. Please let me know your thoughts on how the RDH eVillage can continue to improve and grow. E-mail me at Kristine Hodsdon.

Kristine A. Hodsdon RDH, BS
Director, RDH eVillage