01/03/2017 By Gerard Wong, Dietitian -
Published on Territory Way Edition 120 - June 2015
The Health Star Rating is a government initiative, developed in collaboration with industry, public health and consumer groups. It is a food labelling system which aims to give consumers ‘at-a-glance’ information on the overall healthiness of a food product, similar to the energy ratings currently seen on white goods. The health star system scores the overall nutritional value of packaged food and assigns it a rating. Healthier foods will score more stars, with 5 stars being the highest possible score and ½ a star the lowest – so the more stars the healthier.
How are the Health Stars calculated? Each product’s Health Star Rating is determined using a calculation designed to assess positive and risk nutrients in food. Some of the assessed food components include:
- Energy (kilojoules)
- Risk nutrients – saturated fat, sodium (salt) and sugars
- Positive nutrients – dietary fibre, protein and the proportion of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes
- The quantities of these components determine the number of stars for the product which is calculated based on 100g or 100mL of a product.
Will all food products display the Health Star Rating label?
The Health Star Rating system is voluntary and will only appear on packaged food products at the discretion of food manufacturers. There are some food products which are not expected to display the Health Star Rating. These include fresh unpackaged foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, alcoholic beverages and herbs and spices.
What are some of the pitfalls with the Health Star Rating?
The onus appears to be on the manufacturers who are responsible for the correct and accurate use of the Health Star Rating system. Some of the pitfalls include:
- The rating uses a convoluted form of assessment. The Health Star Rating is worked out from an equation that takes into account overall kilojoules or calories plus three ‘negative’ nutrients – saturated fat, sugars, and sodium. This is balanced against the content of fruit, vegetable, nuts or legumes and also one single ‘positive’ nutrient such as protein or fibre, to get your final score
- Just by reading a nutrition panel at the supermarket, I cannot work out the star rating of a product
- The current system is also voluntary which runs the risk that companies will only display the star rating for high rating products and not display the information on low ranking foods
- As a consumer, uniformity of the stars is important to prevent any confusion but while the layout/star rating on the boxes is the same, I noticed that different manufacturers are using different shades of colour which makes it hard for the consumers to determine if the images are part of the government endorsed star rating system.
- The rating system itself is also not without issues:
- Fresh fruit juices often get a high star rating, even though they provide more fruit sugars when compared to a similar sized bottle of Iced Tea, which contains added table sugar e.g. Nudie apple juice 5 stars, 56g sugar vs Lipton Iced Tea 1.5 stars, 35g sugar
- A low fat but sugar sweetened yoghurt also gets a higher rating than a full fat plain yoghurt which does not have any added sugar
- A 600ml carton of regular iced coffee gets 2.5 stars but the lite iced coffee which has the same amount of sugar as the regular version gets 4 stars
- Soft-drinks also get 1 star, which really makes me wonder what nutritional content is in there
- From these examples it seems that the amount of fat in a product is more important in the star rating system than the amount of total sugar in a product
- Unfortunately, if you have diabetes I do not feel that you should be solely basing your grocery purchases on the star rating system at this stage. The Health Star Rating system will be implemented over a five year period, from June 2014. Progress of the Health Star Rating system will be reviewed after two years. Hopefully some of these issues will be addressed as it rolls out.
Adapted from: http://www.healthstarrating.gov.au (At the time of writing, the website did not have a functioning calculator to show how foods are assessed; this article used the Food Switch Stars rating app from Bupa).
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