The health star rating was rolled out a year ago in an attempt to help consumers make healthier food product choices. However, is this campaign actually working and how good is it at actually identifying a healthy choice?
‘The A$2.1 million campaign is aimed at educating grocery buyers about how to shop for healthy food and encouraging the food industry to adopt the voluntary system. But it’s unlikely the campaign will fulfil its first aim because health stars are predominantly being used by the food industry to market highly processed food products. It would be unfortunate if it was successful in its latter aim because unless we change the way the system currently works, consumers will be the losers.’
The system will be implemented over five years with a review next year. The system is meant to help consumers compare products within the same category and therefore choose the healthiest option e.g. when comparing muesli bars.
About food health star ratings
‘Under the system’s nutrient profiling criteria, individual packaged foods are rated on their composition. Foods receive “baseline” (or negative) points for the amount (per 100 grams or 100 millilitres) of saturated fat, total sugars, sodium and energy. And they receive “modifying” (or positive) points for the amount (again, per 100g or 100mL) of protein, fibre, fruit and vegetables they contain. Points are then converted to a star rating, from half to five stars.’
Whilst the concept of the health star rating is good and in some ways it is helpful, there are also shortcomings. The biggest floor? It is too simple and ignores many other important aspects that make products a better or less good option. It focuses on a few sole nutrients and ignores many others. Therefore some items that are more processed and that do not hold any significance in our diet can get a higher rating than items that do hold an important place in a healthy diet and are less processed.
‘Its main design limitation is that it simplistically frames the cause of, and solution to, dietary imbalances in terms of nutrients. This is fundamentally at odds with the latest nutrition advice, which uses a food-based approach.’
Food consists of a complex matrix of nutrients and non-nutrient components, which interact in multiple ways to influence health. Because people eat foods rather than nutrients in isolation, it makes more sense to give nutrition advice based on whole foods. But the health star rating system looks at nutrients in isolation. And simply awarding stars irrespective of whether a food is from the “discretionary” category is resulting in instances where foods, such as confectionery, are getting higher ratings than five-food-group foods, such as yoghurt.
Another shortcoming is that the system is optional for manufacturers. A company can choose not to display their health start rating on their packaging. For this reason you probably won’t see many products ½ a star or one star.
So how can some companies get around this?
‘So what the health star rating system ends up doing is encouraging marketing of unhealthy or discretionary foods, as healthy options. Discretionary foods are packaged and highly processed and can have their nutrient composition reformulated to increase stars. Manufacturers of potato chips, for instance, might lower their fat or salt content to gain a higher star rating. But chips with half an extra star are still a discretionary food.’
Unfortunaltey it can be easy for people to get caught up in the idea of a rating and see anything without one as less healthy. However, many items from the 5 food groups will not hold a rating yet they are likely less processed and better for health.
‘People tend to view any visual health information on food as at least suggesting it’s healthy. So packaged foods that carry the star symbol, even if only half a star, could be implied to be healthy.’
How can we improve the system?
‘Fixing the system’s design limitations will require placing nutrient profiling within the context of the whole food so consumers are encouraged to choose predominantly from the five food groups. In practice this would mean stars should be available for only five-food-group foods. Health warning symbols should be displayed on discretionary foods.’
This change would provide food manufacturers with stronger incentive to reformulate discretionary foods to avoid attracting health warning symbols on their product labels.
What are your thoughts? Is the system better than nothing or might it be encouraging less healthy choices in some instances? At the end of the day this system aims to help inform people about how to pick healthy food options. We encourage you to speak with your friends, family members, dietitian and local doctor about taking healthy eating choices.