A University of Otago dietitian who helped develop a new
health star food rating system is defending the scheme from
criticism, and says it is not designed to resolve the ''fat
The Government has announced a new voluntary healthy food
star rating system to rank products from 0.5 to five.
Health star labels are expected to be on products in six to
12 months. Labels will show saturated fat, sugars, salt,
energy, and sometimes nutrients, such as calcium.
Associate Prof Winsome Parnell, who was a member of the
Government advisory group on the scheme, defended it
yesterday from claims a traffic light system would have been
She said the diet debate has become ''polarising'', with too
much emphasis at present on the sugar versus fat debate.
Otago University marketing department researcher Dr Ninya
Maubach, of Wellington, led a study comparing nutrition
labelling systems on fruit mueslis, and found the traffic
light system was best at helping people choose the healthiest
''If we want to use labels to reduce obesity, we need a label
that promotes quick identification of unhealthy products,''
Dr Maubach said.
Otago University public health and nutrition senior lecturer
Rachael McLean said colour-coded multiple traffic light
labels had been shown in several studies to be most
''While it has been shown that under experimental conditions
consumers are able to use the health star rating system to
identify healthier food products, it is not clear how the
system will operate in real world settings.''
Prof Parnell said the advisory group, which had Australian
representatives, settled on the star rating system quite
early in its deliberations.
The system will be used in both countries.
The system was less blunt than a traffic light system, as it
allowed customers to assess a food's fat, sugar, energy, and
''I'm not going to discuss the fat sugar debacle, I'm going
to tell you this: for some individuals fat in the diet is
very important, for some individuals sugar in the diet is
''Maybe the people who've said it's sugar that makes you fat,
[or] it's fat that makes you fat, are both wrong, because the
causes of obesity are very, very complex.
''If you decide that you listen to the loudest voice and
sugar is going to kill you, the data and information is there
- you can decide.''
Prof Parnell said no particular food should be labelled the
''baddie'', and people needed to see the bigger picture,
including the role of exercise.
''The thing that upsets me most is people looking for the one
stop shop ... the obesity epidemic is not like that, and
you've talked about food, you haven't talked one bit about
how much we sit in front of a computer.''
The nutrition debate had become too ''polarising'', and
alienated the general public, she believed.
''It's got to the point where nothing is healthy and we can't
Asked to further discuss the debate about the relative harm
of sugar and fat, she declined, saying ''that debate is no
No one labelling system could answer all the questions about
a food's health profile, and it was just one tool in the
fight against obesity, Prof Parnell said.