Five years after its implementation in June 2014, a review of the Health Star Rating (HSR) has found it performs well. Studies have shown that seeing the logo on the front of a pack effectively directs shoppers towards buying foods lower in kilojoules (Calories), saturated fats, sugars and sodium. Is it all positive? Or are there a few problems that still need to be ironed out? Take a look at my thoughts…
I think that you’d expect that basic foods like vegetables, fruits, meat and fish would score an average HSR of 4 while discretionary foods like confectionery and snacks would score lower, with an average of 2. To me, this indicates a good alignment with the Dietary Guidelines which encourage us to eat more basic staples and to cut back on ‘processed junk’.
In Australia, I found it interesting that the products with the highest uptake of the voluntary rating are:
Interestingly, only a small number of retailers and manufacturers are responsible for a large proportion of the uptake. Coles, Woolworths and Aldi Private Labels collectively accounted for 56 per cent of the total and five manufacturers (Simplot, Nestlé, Lion, Coca-Cola Amatil and Unilever) collectively accounted for 16 per cent of total uptake. So it would appear that only the big companies have the resources needed to introduce it.
In summary, the Review says these four positive things about the Stars:
Many products have been reformulated to reduce sodium, sugars and/or saturated fat and increase wholegrains and fibre to boost the nutritional profile as a direct result of the HSR System. For example, I have documented how one manufacturer reformulated a breakfast cereal to reduce salt content by 25 per cent, dropped the sugar by 17 per cent and boosted the fibre by a huge 66 per cent. Read more here.
Based on modelling, these changes are expected to decrease the HSRs of approximately 10% of products (mostly discretionary foods) and increase the HSRs of approximately 6% of products (mostly basic foods such as fruits, vegetables, yoghurts and cheeses).
The HSR System fails to adequately distinguish between added sugars and intrinsic or naturally-occurring sugars. Having said that, there is currently no agreed definition of added sugars, nor is there an analytical method for measuring only added sugars, as these are chemically identical to intrinsic sugars and are processed by the body in the same way.
Currently, fruit juices with relatively high total sugars receive HSRs of 4 to 5, while unsweetened flavoured waters generally receive HSRs of around 2 (despite having no sugars and being closer in nutritional profile to plain water).
The proposed changes mean that:
This seems much fairer to me.
The Review lists several anomalies that are obvious now:
Over the years I’ve written about both the Health Star Ratings themselves and some surprising products that have managed to score 4 and 5 stars. I’ve listed them below so you can check them out.
The Stars are currently voluntary and only appear on packets at the discretion of manufacturers and retailers. This is a major shortcoming – it needs to be on virtually every food at a supermarket for it to work.
This Review, whilst based on the best available evidence, aims to keep the HSR System as simple as possible and is intended to support consumers to choose between like products. For instance, it helps when trying to choose between two muesli bars or two breakfast cereals. Don’t use it to compare wildly-differing foods such as an apple compared to smoked salmon. It won’t help you.
You can’t use it to find out where your food has been grown, if it’s organic or nut-free, if it’s grass-fed or wild-caught or its degree of processing. It was never intended as a complete source of dietary advice. You’d have to see a dietitian for that.
You can read the full review yourself here.
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