Why the Health Star Rating Isn’t Working

Amelia Phillips

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Food star ratings 2It’s been one year since the government launched the Health Star Food Rating System, and it doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect. Confectionary items (such as strawberry liquorice) are scoring higher stars than some healthy foods such as Greek yoghurt. So what’s gone wrong and can it be fixed?

What is the purpose of the Health Star Rating system?

The original aim was to educate consumers about the healthy options when shopping. It was supposed to make shopping for healthy foods easier. The second aim was to incentivise the food industry to produce healthier foods by awarding them with this star rating. So if you were shopping for a loaf of bread, for example, it would be easy to quickly tell which brand types were the healthiest (the higher the stars, the better for you… right!?). It’s been one out of a five year implementation, and the Government has started second phase of Health Star Food Rating System awareness campaign.  A review is planned for next year.

How does the system work?

  • Foods receive “baseline” (or negative) points for the amount (per 100 grams or 100 millilitres) of saturated fat, total sugars, sodium and energy.
  • 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.

The system is supposed to help consumers compare different types of the same foods and make healthier choices.  Eg comparing two loaves bread, choosing the one with the highest star rating. It was also meant to encourage manufacturers to formulate their ingredients to be healthier, lower fat, salt and sugar.

Why does it not appear to be working?

  • Allows Discretionary items (not in 5 food groups): The Australian Dietary Guidelines advises we eat a balanced diet of food from the 5 food groups and limit or avoid ‘discretionary’ foods which are highly processed, energy-dense and nutrient-poor junk foods and drinks. Yet these foods are allowed to be awarded stars.
  • Focuses on nutrients: Rather than a food based approach.  By looking at a set number of nutrients (albeit important ones) it does give a limited view of that food and is what is called a ‘nutrient’ approach. The Australian Dietary guidelines suggests a ‘food based’ approach, as the nutrients in food work together in a complex matrix that influences our health.
  • Makes some junk food look good.  Food manufacturers are loving being able to put stars on the discretionary foods such as hot chips, it’s making junk food look good!
  • Voluntary: food manufacturers can decide whether a product will display health stars or not. Understandably, although manufacturers might be happy to display stars on foods that attract between two and five stars, they are less likely to put one or half a star on their products.
  • True healthy foods don’t have stars: Veggies don’t have packets, where do we put the stars?
  • The halo effect: We know that foods that contain any rating, or symbol get perceived as more healthy
  • Food Industry: Health stars seem to be predominantly used by the food industry to market highly processed food products.
  • Compromise: It was developed through compromise between government, industry, public health and consumer groups, and often compromises can lead to limitations.

Are there any ways we could make it better?

  1. 5 food groups only: stars should be available for only five-food-group foods. By using the nutrient profiling that they already use, within the context of the whole food so consumers are encouraged to choose predominantly from the five food groups.
  2. Health warning symbols should be displayed on discretionary foods.
  3. Consumer confidence: Most importantly, consumers will be able to have confidence that they can use the health star rating system to compare all foods for their relative healthy properties.

Read more on the topic here:

Watch my Mornings segment here:  

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