FALMOUTH (AP) – A gold star rating system aimed at helping food shoppers make healthier choices seems to have some influence – meaning more Shredded Wheat, Raisin Bran and Honey Nut Clusters in shopping carts.

Hannaford Bros., a New England supermarket chain, said sales of items that earned at least one out of three stars outpaced similar products that got no stars.

The difference was greatest among packaged foods, including cereal, canned goods, bakery items and snack foods. Hannaford said those products that received stars grew 2 times faster than similar items deemed less healthy.

The system is based on a formula that Hannaford wants to patent.

In general, though, vitamins, minerals, fiber and whole grains earn more stars. Added sodium, trans fats, saturated fats and cholesterol mean fewer, or no, stars.

“I love it. I absolutely do,” Donna Lewis of Falmouth said Wednesday after pushing her cart through the checkout line with her 5-year-old son.

Lewis uses the star system to teach her children, including two other boys, about good nutrition. The star system make nutrition simple, she said. Children easily understand it.

Some of Hannaford’s ratings are a no-brainer.

For example, whole milk gets no stars, 1 percent milk gets two stars and skim milk gets three stars. Whole-grain breads get more stars than standard white flour. Virtually all fresh produce, from habaneros to mangos, get three stars.

As expected, Fruity Pebbles, Cap’n Crunch, Cocoa Puffs and similar sugar-laden cereals get no stars. Ditto for Campbell’s Spaghettio’s and Chef Boyardee Ravioli and Kraft Easy Mac. On the canned soup aisle, there are practically no stars at all.

But the star system contains some surprises, even for educated shoppers.

Mott’s four flavors of “Healthy Harvest” applesauce in kid-sized serving containers get two stars. Right next to those on the shelf, Mott’s Scooby Doo! “Pirates Punch” and “Mummy Berry” flavors, which have added sugar, get no stars.

Kim Marcotte of Falmouth was surprised to discover that a can of Nature’s Place Organic green beans she purchased had 380 milligrams of salt. But Del Monte Fresh Cut’s “cut green beans” had only 10 milligrams of salt, earning it stars.

“I just assumed that because it was a vegetable, it would be good for you,” said Marcotte, who tries to buy organic products for her young children.

Hannaford said data suggest consumers are using the program.

Star-rated frozen dinners grew 4 times faster than unstarred ones, and breakfast cereals with stars grew 3 times faster than other cereals, Hannaford said.

Among other findings, sales of star-rated ground beef grew 7 percent while other ground beef declined 5 percent; chicken that earned stars grew 5 percent, while other chicken dropped 3 percent; fat-free milk grew 1 percent, and whole milk dropped 4 percent.

Only a few food areas, including seafood, showed no change.

“The fact that the movement of products with stars has been growing steadily since the introduction of the program suggests to me that customers are using the program,” said Caren Epstein, spokeswoman for Scarborough-based Hannaford.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, said the findings are encouraging.

“It’s certainly a good step forward, and the entire supermarket industry is watching Hannaford,” said Michael Jacobson, the nonprofit’s executive director in Washington.

Hannaford ratings cover more than 25,000 items now, and the chain with 160 stores in New England and New York plans to begin including baby food starting Sept. 15. Star ratings for oils will be in Hannaford stores later this year.

Already, Guiding Stars has expanded to another supermarket chain, Florida-based Sweetbay Supermarkets. And Food Lion is expected to launch the program next year, Epstein said. All three chains are owned by Delhaize America.

The program comes as food makers, the government and others consider various ranking schemes. Hannaford will present its findings at a Food and Drug Administration hearing on Monday and Tuesday focusing on front-label nutrition symbols.

Marcotte, a shopper from Falmouth, said the Guiding Stars haven’t changed her buying habits overall. But it has allowed her to spend less time studying food labels.

“It has made it easier,” she said. “When I go grocery shopping, I go to the back and look for two things: hydrogenated oils and high-fructose corn syrup. Now I don’t have to spend as much time reading the back of boxes.”

On the Net:

Hannaford Bros. www.hannaford.com

AP-ES-09-05-07 1754EDT

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