In 2014 the Federal Government’s health star rating system for food products was unveiled. Since then it has attracted a significant amount of controversy and criticism from both health professionals and consumers.
But why would so many people be upset with a system designed to help consumers choose healthier options at the supermarket?
What the system looks like
I am sure you have noticed some products in supermarkets displaying the health star rating. The system uses a pictorial ranking from 0.5 to 5 stars on the front of food packages, and can either appear with just the star rating or be accompanied by additional information about the nutrient content of the product.
How the stars are calculated
Under the health star system, packaged foods are given a star rating based on the total energy, risk nutrients and positive nutrients they contain. Risk nutrients include saturated fat, sodium and sugar content, and positive nutrients include dietary fibre, protein and the proportion of fruit, vegetables, nut and legume content in the food. The system uses an algorithm that awards baseline points to food products depending on their risk nutrients and awards positive or modifying points for positive nutrients. The algorithm then produces a final score, which is converted to one of the 10 star ratings ranging from 0.5 stars to 5 stars.
Benefits of the health star rating system
The health star rating system has been designed and is intended to be used by consumers for comparing similar packaged foods only. In this way, it can be useful for consumers to quickly ascertain products that are ‘healthier’ compared to similar products without going through the potentially time-consuming and confusing process of comparing Nutrition Information Panels. For example, the system can be used to compare two types of breakfast cereals. In this scenario, the breakfast cereal with a higher rating could be healthier, as it may be lower in energy, sodium and sugar, and higher in dietary fibre, protein or the proportion of fruits and nuts it contains.
The star system can also influence food manufacturers to reformulate and improve the nutritional content of their products so they can receive a higher rating. In this way, it can motivate food companies to reconsider the nutritional content of their products. The system has already encouraged big-brand companies such as Kellogg’s to reformulate some of their products by reducing the salt and sugar content to display a higher health star rating and therefore potentially become more appealing to some consumers.
Limitations of the system
The health star rating’s marketing slogan is ‘the more stars, the healthier the choice’, but is this always the case? Although the ratings system seems to be a step in the right direction by trying to guide consumers towards healthier diets, the system is not without its faults.
A major weakness of the system is that is it not mandatory for food companies to display health star ratings on their food products, thus allowing food manufacturers to decide whether their product will display a rating or not. It follows that companies may be happy to display a rating on foods that attract higher stars, but decide to leave products that attract a lower number without the rating. Unless every manufacturer adopts the star rating on all their products, consumers will not be able to properly make comparisons.
Only compares foods within categories
According to the health star rating website, the system is designed to provide a ‘quick, easy, standard way to compare similar packaged foods’. However, the marketing slogan (‘the more stars, the healthier’) implies the ratings are based on comparisons between all foods, rather than foods within categories. For example, the system can help you compare two loaves of bread or two breakfast cereals. However, it is not designed to compare food products outside of determined and similar categories. You are unable to directly compare, say, cheese and breakfast cereal.
Healthy foods can have lower star ratings than discretionary foods
As the system is designed to only compare food products within categories, some healthy foods under the Australian Dietary Guidelines such as plain Greek yoghurt can score 1.5 health stars compared with confectionery, which can score 2.5 health stars. This can occur because the system does not compare products across categories. Another reason for this limitation is that the system’s algorithm rates saturated fat as less healthy than sugar, which can lead to foods naturally containing higher levels of saturated fat, like full-cream dairy, having a lower health star rating than heavily processed snack foods with lower levels of saturated fat.
Limited to packaged foods
The system is only designed to display health star ratings on packaged foods, not fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry and fish that comprise only a single ingredient. This can be worrisome – these are obviously core foods under the Australian Dietary Guidelines, but without a health star rating they could be seen by consumers as less important in their overall diet, which is certainly not the case.
Based on preparation suggestions rather than product ingredients
The ‘as prepared’ rule is a provision within the system that allows companies to rate products based on their suggested recipe for preparation rather than the nutrient composition of the product’s ingredients alone. A clear example is Milo – the 4.5-star rating proudly displayed on the Milo tin only applies if it is consumed with 200ml of skimmed milk. If the health star rating was based solely on Milo’s nutritional content, it would actually score only a 1.5 health star rating. This strange contradiction is misleading for consumers and a deceptive loophole in the system.
Doesn’t distinguish between natural and added sugars
Another major concern with the health star rating system is that the algorithm treats added sugars the same as many naturally occurring sugars such as fructose in fruit and lactose in milk. Apart from the issue of comparison between food categories, this means, for example, some muesli bars with lots of added sugar can end up scoring relatively highly compared to some dairy products with natural lactose that can receive a low star rating.
Ratings can be manipulated by food manufacturers
Having a health rating on their products can motivate and influence big food companies to reformulate products to contain less ‘risk’ nutrients such as sugar and sodium. However, some manufacturers have manipulated the system by substituting added sugar, classed as a risk nutrient, with fruit juice or fruit puree, which are stripped of vitamins and fibre but are awarded positive ‘modifying’ points by the system’s algorithm. Further, a food technologist can manipulate many highly processed foods to receive more stars by adding inulin, a white powder that counts as dietary fibre, or soy protein isolate or milk powder to boost the product’s protein content.
The way forward
Although the ratings system can be considered a positive development in educating consumers and reducing diet-related chronic disease in Australia, the system does contain flaws that influence its effectiveness. The main issue with the system is that the campaign slogan ‘the more stars, the healthier’ implies that all foods are rated against one another rather than within discrete categories. So a new advertising campaign could emphasise exactly how the system is intended to be used by consumers. The system could also be improved by making it mandatory for food manufacturers to include a health star rating on all products, allowing consumers to make more informed comparisons and choices. Other suggestions include putting a minimum star rating on core foods from the Australian Dietary Guidelines and a maximum star rating on discretionary foods for consistency and to ensure health star ratings are applied to foods across the whole diet. This would give consumers more confidence in using the health star rating system to validly compare all foods for their relative health properties. Without these improvements to the system, more stars do not always mean a healthier product.