Five Questions for: Jon Plodzik

5 Questions, Jon Plodzik, University of New Hampshire, Guiding StarsFiguring out how to label menu items in an easy-to-read but informative way is a challenge most directors face. So when Guiding Stars, a nutritional rating company that started in grocery stores, approached 15,000-student University of New Hampshire, Jon Plodzik, director of dining, was intrigued. Plodzik talks to FSD about how his department implemented the Guiding Stars rating system in his operation.

What does the Guiding Stars program entail?

It’s a proprietary nutritional analysis program that uses a star rating system to show if the item is a healthy choice. It’s kind of like a debit and credit system where if a food item has a lot of sodium that would be a debit, but if it has a lot of fiber that would be a credit. It starts with one star, which means the item is good for you, two is better and three is the best. We sent the company about 4,000 recipes—we’ve currently implemented 900 of them—which was a challenge because every item in the recipe had to include its full nutrition information. About 50% of our recipes received at least one star. Our goal is to increase our star choices as we go along. If you came in now, you might see half the items labeled with stars and also some that have the label that indicates the item received no stars, so the idea is we could make recipes to try and get more star ratings. We took the labeling one step further than we originally thought we would because we included the full nutritionals on the label, including calories, grams of fat, allergens, etc.

How did the partnership between UNH and Guiding Stars get started?

The UNH system was trying to find ways to promote healthier lifestyles for the staff. Guiding Stars approached UNH with a way to simplify food choices. Guiding Stars was originally designed for supermarkets. It had never been applied in the method we are using. We met in February of last year and we had conversations about how this could work. We involved our dieticians on campus as well as nutrition faculty in trying to develop this to see if it would meet the needs of our customers. It’s been a little bit of a challenge in the sense that when Guiding Stars is implemented in the supermarket, it’s easy because it’s just one product. It becomes a lot more complex when you’re dealing with cooking methodology and multiple ingredients. I liked the concept from what we saw initially and we’ve decided to apply it to all our dining halls as a starting point and then it will roll out to the retail venues.

How have you educated your customers about the new system?

It’s a completely new thing for everyone on campus. We kicked it off this school year. Guiding Stars trained our staff so they would understand what items received Guiding Stars and what didn’t. We wanted to let the customers know there is nothing wrong with items that have one star. Those items are still good choices. It’s all about moderation. There are plenty of items that didn’t receive any stars but are perfectly fine if you eat them in moderation. We have signage in all our dining halls that encourage students to use the rating system to make healthy choices. So far the feedback has been pretty good. It’s a bit of a work in progress because we started with tags that didn’t have the calories and grams of fat, etc., but we quickly contacted our food management company and said we need to put that stuff back on the tags—the idea being that we want to provide all the information.

What kinds of items received the highest/lowest rating?

The highest ratings are for things such as vegetables, beans and sauces like marinara did very well. Items that received no stars include pizza or items that are fried. Research indicates that consumers tend to gravitate toward items that have higher star ratings. The company has seen manufactures who want to receive three stars so they are going back to see what they can change to get more stars, which is what we want to do. One example we had was a barbecue chicken with the bone in and I was surprised it didn’t receive any stars. We found that the sauce had high sugar and sodium content and the chicken had the skin on it, so it’s an educational piece for us as well.

What advice would you give to other operators who might want to implement Guiding Stars or something similar?

I would recommend that you work with nutrition faculty and the guests you serve to create a program that provides the information they want to see. Our end product provides information that combined the desires of both groups. The challenge now will be to educate our guests on how to use that information. The data in the background is critical to provide an accurate finished product. This was no easy undertaking for UNH or Guiding Stars to create a method to have all of our recipes evaluated. It starts with accurate recipes, so I’d advise anyone looking to duplicate our efforts to begin by really looking at how accurate your recipes are. They form the base of your efforts.