The grocery store chain’s star system steers customers toward healthier foods, a study finds.

A nutritional rating system using gold stars affixed to price labels on shelves at Hannaford Supermarkets appears to have shifted buying habits, potentially providing another tool to educate consumers on how to eat healthier, according to a new study.

The independent study examining a gold star system used in the Maine-based grocery store chain suggested it steered shoppers away from items with no stars toward healthier foods that merited gold stars.

“Our results suggest that point-of-sale nutrition information programs may be effective in providing easy-to-find nutrition information that is otherwise nonexistent, difficult to obtain or difficult to understand,” the researchers wrote in the study, published last week in the journal Food Policy.

It’s the most rigorous scientific study focusing on Guiding Stars, which was instituted in 2006 in Hannaford stores and is now licensed for use in more than 1,800 stores in the United States and Canada.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the University of Florida focused on the cereal aisle, where it can be challenging to make healthy choices amid conflicting health claims and a multitude of sugary offerings targeting children.

They compared data from 134 Hannaford grocery stores in the Northeast against an equal number of similar stores and found that sales of no-star cereals dropped 2.58 percent more at Hannaford stores compared with the control group, while cereals getting one, two or three stars at Hannaford saw modest but measurable gains of 0.5 percent to 1 percent during the first 20 months of the program.

“Although the percentages are small, if you think in terms of the actual quantities or boxes of cereal sold in the national market, this could have some important implications on the nation’s health,” said Jordan Lin, an author of the study and scientist at the FDA.

For the study, researchers zeroed in on Hannaford and Guiding Stars because of the availability of the data. It used data that was provided by Guiding Stars Licensing Co. and from Nielsen ScanTrack to compare the Hannaford and the control group.

Julie Greene, healthy living manager at Hannaford, said the Guiding Stars program has been a hit with consumers. The cereal aisle “can be very overwhelming. Every cereal box is a virtual billboard of health claims,” she said.