Navigating through a grocery store, trying to sort between the healthy food and the not-so-healthy stuff seems to get tougher all the time. But a new nutrition scoring system that's just arrived in Canada promises to make it a little easier.

Guiding Stars, a food rating system patented in the United States where it's been in use for five years, is now in Canada.

Grocery giant Loblaw Cos. Ltd. has just introduced the program through a pilot project in four of its Toronto-area stores. If all goes well, the program could be rolled out system nationally next year.

The Guiding Stars system uses its own specially-designed algorithm to rate a grocery item's overall nutrition value. It takes into account a food item's vitamins, minerals, fibre and whole grains, while also noting the presence of trans fat, saturated fats, cholesterol, added sugars and added sodium.

It then puts the variables together and awards the item either one, two or three stars -- or no stars at all.

One star means the item has good nutritional value; two stars means better nutritional value; and three stars means it offers the best nutritional value.

So, most fruits score 3 stars, while Goldfish crackers score a zero. Even pretzels with a label that promises the item is low fat, trans fat-free, contains whole grains and oat bran still scores a zero, presumably because it's still low in overall nutrition.

Among food categories that many would consider healthy, there can be variations. Here are a few examples:

  • Fresh salmon fillets earn 3 stars, but whitefish fillets score 2 stars.
  • White potatoes merit 3 stars, while russet baking potatoes earn two stars.
  • Canned sardines packed in water earn 3 stars while canned sardines in sauces earn anything from two stars to zero stars.

Guiding Stars explains on its website that just because a food earns zero star doesn't mean it shouldn't be eaten; it just means there may be more nutritious options to choose from.

"Guiding Stars is not intended to tell you what to buy, but rather point you toward foods that have more vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, whole grains –and less fats, cholesterol, sugar and sodium," the website reads.

Every item is audited in grocery stores that sign on to the Guiding Stars program -- from packaged food to produce to ready-to-eat deli items.

What makes the Guiding Stars system different from current nutrition rating systems, such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation's Health Check program, is that food manufacturers have no means of influencing whether or not they are rated, or what score they end up with.

With Health Check, food companies have to pay to be evaluated. And some have criticized that program's choices, including obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, who had noted many times on his blog that the program often awards check marks to foods high in sodium and low in nutrients.

Guiding Stars was developed in 2006 by a grocery store chain in New England called Hannaford Brothers, and uses a panel of experts in nutrition science, food science, and public health as part of its Scientific Advisory Panel.

The program in now in more than 1,500 U.S. stores and has also expanded to public school districts and college dining facilities.