(Dec. 14) Nutritional ratings systems soon will be showing up on shelves and packaging in grocery stores across the country.

The question remains whether the systems will help, confound or simply be ignored by consumers.

Portland, Maine-based Hannaford Bros. Co. has implemented its Guiding Stars rating program in 164 Hannaford Supermarkets in the Northeast and 106 Sweetbay stores in Florida since introducing it in September 2006. The retailer announced Nov. 29 that it plans to license the system, which rates foods with zero to three stars based on nutritional value, to other retailers.

“I was very impressed with what they did,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association. “Licensing that will help. It’s a good move. It’s very simple. That’s why it’s working, and shoppers are responding to it.”

Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation, said keeping it simple is critical.

She said that at a Food and Drug Administration hearing on nutritional labeling in September, Kraft Foods Inc. reported that consumers spend only two seconds looking at food labels, while Unilever reported consumers take five seconds to scan labels.

At the same hearing, Pepsi Co. testified 37% of consumers are confused by nutritional information labels, Pivonka said.

Straightforward labeling, however, can work. Pivonka said United Kingdom-based retailer Tesco testified that nutritional signage in its stores caused sales of sandwiches with less healthy ingredients to drop 30%, while sandwiches marked as healthy increased 40%.

The day before Hannaford Bros. announced its licensing plan, Griffin Hospital, Derby, Conn., unveiled its Overall Nutritional Quality Index. That system ranks foods on a scale from one to 100.

The system, two years in the making, was devised by a team of health experts that included past presidents of the American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association and the president of the American Cancer Society.

The system is intended to allow consumers to quickly compare items within a given category and select the healthier option.

“It’s got to be really simple for the consumer,” Pivonka said, “and that system is too complicated in my opinion.”

Topco Associates Inc., a retail buying cooperative based in Skokie, Ill., already has announced that it will make the system available to its members in the second half of 2008. William Powanda, vice president of Griffin Hospital, said the cooperative also would license the system to nonmembers in collaboration with the hospital.

A spokeswoman for Topco, which Griffin refers to as a partner in its news release, could not be reached for comment. Powanda declined to elaborate on details of potential licensing agreements and the licensing process.

While Hannaford has ranked 28% of the food in its stores in its good, better and best system, the Overall Nutritional Quality Index will rank virtually every item on the shelves.

That won’t be good for manufacturers of foods with low scores.

“Clearly the industry is aware this is coming,” Powanda said. “If they had their druthers would some food manufacturers want this? No, but they know it’s coming, and if it is coming they want it to be backed by science.”