How do I rate the Health Star rating system?

So this is a slight departure from scheduled programming. I will get back to the nutrients in the brain, I promise. Like next week. However the unveiling of our (NZ’s) plan to adopt Australia’s star system in order to rate the ‘healthiness’ of food kind of got me thinking. Not a lot – don’t worry. But a bit. So this will likely be brief and hopefully give you something to ponder as you sip your latte and read the paper (or run after the kids down at the gardens while feeding the ducks stale bread – which really is where any white bread product belongs, quite frankly). Essentially, the health star rating is designed to be an easy to understand panel for consumers to evaluate the healthfulness of a product. It is designed to be interpretive, which would ideally take the guess work out for people who want to make healthier decisions around food. It is designed around the UK nutrient profile system. It’s front of pack labelling gives people at-a-glance access to the nutrition information, and takes into account overall energy content of the food, the saturated fat component, sodium and total sugars. It also highlights positive features such as dietary protein, fibre and its fruit and vegetable content. It uses a star rating of ½ to 5 stars, and those with more stars are supposed to reflect better choices:

Star rating

The two choices: Either in relation to % daily intake (above) or per 100g

Another rating system for food. And, with it, comes a few issues. Saturated fat for example. In the context of a whole food diet, the inclusion of saturated fat is not likely to increase the risk of diet-related disease in all but a few individuals (and that’s quite a blanket statement, but reflects the state of our knowledge at this point in time). However, the difference in saturated fat content between reduced fat and whole milk, margarine and butter, and the content of cheese totally blows out the star rating of some really nutritious food and labels foods ‘healthy’ which are highly processed, high in industrial seed oils or have had some of the healthiest nutrients removed to create a lower fat option (milk). The saturated fat content of packaged, processed food? Totally deserves to be labelled as ‘to be avoided at all costs’. In this context, the food item delivering the saturated fat is likely also high in processed refined carbohydrate (sugar, flour), lower in fibre and overall nutrients. Think crackers. Or Eta Munchos. Or those food products that used to only be a ‘treat’ chocolate product which have infiltrated the biscuit aisle and are now masquerading as morning tea. Yes, Freddo, I’m looking at you.

Lurking at a biscuit aisle near you.

Lurking in a biscuit aisle near you.

Another issue – as far as I can see – is that it’s voluntary for manufacturers. Not only do they not have to use it, but they also have their choice of labelling. They can have it either as a per 100g serving or as a percentage of daily intake – and apparently for the whole packet? I really don’t like these % labels and they are everywhere. Cereal companies love them. Percentage of who’s daily intake? This whole concept is entirely confusing for all concerned. People don’t understand food labels, or energy requirements. You might – you are, after all, reading my blog which suggests you have at least a fleeting interest in it – but believe me, the general population don’t. This report from food standards new Zealand summarises that and, interestingly, also states that even when given information to enable them to understand percentage labelling better, consumers didn’t really use it. Indeed Australian research reveals the same thing Tellingly, only those who were interested in nutrition actually used it. So… exactly the people that don’t need it. And how much does a packet serve? Some of these seemingly individual products do – on closer inspection – feed a family of eight, not just you at morning tea. If you’re looking at the health star rating and thinking you may have seen it before, then you won’t be too far wrong… it looks just like almost every other front of pack labelling that is used by companies such as the aforementioned cereal companies. People don’t do details. There’s no real distinction between the rating deemed by the Ministry of Primary Industries to give us useful information and that which is created by the manufacturer, designed by them to be read as they want us to read it. Companies who aren’t in the business of health, but in the business of selling us product. For a star rating to be effective, perhaps the removal of very similar manufacturer labels be compulsory to help minimise confusion. Finally – for a product to have a star rating almost gives it a health halo akin to that of the Heart Foundation tick. We may know that a tick is as flawed a concept as the Glycaemic Index symbol, but others look to it as a healthy product. The devil is in the detail – it might be lower in energy, lower in sugar and lower in sodium, but we know it doesn’t make a product ‘healthy’ – just more favourable in comparison to a like product. Those are details that we as health advocates are well aware of. The general public? Not so much. On that note, did I already mention that the National Heart Foundation have unveiled another tick system? Yep, that’s right. Not content with just one tick, they have introduced the two tick system. Two ticks. Must be even more healthy, right? Core food groups are worthy of two ticks, these other products are only able to get one tick. As I’m looking at these two groups I have two thoughts: 1. Why do these foods even need a tick? 2. How on earth did some of these foods get one tick in the first place? Hmm. Yes. A health rating on a food item is problematic. If I had my way, real food wouldn’t need a label (obviously) and any labelling that packaged food has should be related to the degree of processing, the amount of additives, it’s shelf life, and the combination of nutrients known to affect health (i.e. fat and sugar). That would get my tick of approval and five star rating. 🙂

4 thoughts on “How do I rate the Health Star rating system?

  1. One saving grace of the voluntary use of this system, is that perfectly healthy foods like almond butter, coconut cream, pork crackling (the free range, no additive stuff of course) and olive oil, wont be forced to display a half star rating.

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