The second phase of the government’s awareness campaign has begun for Australia’s health-star food-rating scheme, which is now a year old. The A$2.1m campaign aims to educate grocery shoppers about healthy shopping and encourage the food industry to adopt the voluntary system.
It’s unlikely that the campaign will achieve its first goal because the food industry uses health stars to promote highly processed foods. The drive would fail in its second goal if we don’t change the current system.
This yogurt is only given one and quarter stars, despite the fact that it’s clearly healthy. Author provided
After a long, difficult process, the federal government has finally introduced the Health Star Rating System. The industry will implement the system over a five-year period, and a review for next year is planned.
The system uses nutrient profiles to rate packaged foods. The amount of sodium, sugar, energy, and saturated fat (per 100g or 100) is used to determine the “baseline” points (or negative). They also receive “modifying” moments (or positive ones) for the amount of fruit, vegetables, fiber, and protein they contain (again per 100g). The points are converted into a star rating ranging from 0.5 to 5 stars.
It is designed to assist consumers in comparing similar foods that are part of the same food group but contain different quantities of unwanted ingredients. For example, it should help consumers reach the salt content of two loaves.
While licorice receives two and a quarter stars. Author: The Author provided
It is also intended to encourage manufacturers to reformulate products. As an example, the system should encourage manufacturers of bread to make it with less salt. It was developed as a compromise between the government, industry, and public health groups. However, there are some design and implementation limitations.
The main limitation of its design is that it frames dietary imbalances and their solution in terms of nutrition. It is at odds with the latest nutrition advice, which takes a food-based perspective.
Consider the Australian Dietary Guidelines. This is a set of nuanced eating rules that are based on nutrition research. These guidelines encourage to enjoy a variety of nutritious foods from the five main food groups.
The food matrix is a complex matrix that includes nutrients and nonnutrients. These components interact in many ways to affect health. It makes sense to base nutrition recommendations on whole foods rather than isolated nutrients.
The Health Star rating system does not consider nutrients as a whole. By giving stars to all foods regardless of whether they fall under the discretionary category, foods like confectionery are rated higher than foods from five food groups, such as yogurt.
Its voluntary nature means that food manufacturers decide whether to display the health stars on their products. Understandably, manufacturers are happy to show stars for foods with between two and five star ratings, but less so for products with just one or half star.
Do chips deserve four stars for their healthiness? Author provided
The health star rating system encourages the marketing of unhealthy foods or discretionary food as healthy choices. Foods that are highly processed, packaged, and discretionary can be reformulated in order to gain more stars. For example, manufacturers of potato chips may lower the fat or sodium content in order to achieve a higher star ranking. Chips with a half-star extra are still considered a discretionary item.
The main message of the campaign – “the higher the stars, the better” is misleading. The health stars are not displayed on many of the products from the five food categories (see above). It’s important to remember that the health message is not to try to eat foods with more stars but to consume more of these food.
The health star rating system has the effect of giving labels that have stars a defacto approval, or a halo. People often interpret or any visual information about health on food to mean that it is healthy. Foods that are packaged with the star symbol could be interpreted as healthy, even if it is only half of a star.