Food for thought: Processed food star ratings

Charmian Smith investigates what is in the food we routinely pull from the supermarket shelf or buy ready made to eat. 

You may have noticed star ratings appearing on the fronts of some processed food packages.

This is the new health star rating system being introduced to make it easier for consumers to choose the healthiest from a group of similar products, such as breakfast cereals, yoghurts or muesli bars.

The new symbol assigns between half and five stars to the product and five boxes indicate energy, saturated fat, sugar, sodium as well as a beneficial nutrient per 100g. Like the energy star rating system on appliances, the more stars the better.

Associate Prof Winsome Parnell of the department of human nutrition at the University of Otago, who was on the government advisory panel, explains it is intended to be a quick and simple way of comparing similar packaged foods.

Processed foods already have to have ingredient lists and nutrition information panels on the back of their packets, but this is on the front and can be seen at a glance, she said.

Health star rating is a joint system with Australia as we share the same food regulatory body, FSANZ, and there's a strong transtasman flow of food.

Countries such as the UK, have a traffic light system but that tends to be a single nutrient issue, Prof Parnell said.

The health star rating calculator takes into account healthy nutrients such as dietary fibre, protein, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, as well as less desirable ones, saturated fat, sugar, sodium and energy (kilojoules).

‘‘You have to understand food is not one nutrient, it's a mixture of nutrients, so a system that indicated the healthiness of a food with respect to a number of nutrients was the way to go.''

‘‘If you had a yoghurt and it had fruit that would be a plus point but if it had added sugar it would be a negative. You could have a variable fat level, different amounts of sugar and added fruit and all that would go in together to create the health star rating. Whether you like the one with the most stars is interesting. It's nothing about how it tastes.''

Unlike the Heart Foundation tick which had to be paid for, companies can calculate their own stars using the online calculator so it is expected that smaller companies will take it up as well as larger manufacturers.

Although it is voluntary, companies are expected to use it, and even reformulate their products to remain competitive. This was already happening.

‘‘If you are a mum and want to give your kids a muesli or snack bar to take to school, are you going to go for one with the stars on or one without? The manufacturer can choose not to put stars on but if there are no stars and people don't buy it the company will go down the tube. They have to put on a nutrition label, so they can't hide what is in there,'' she said.

‘‘I suspect this is a product where they will be modifying composition [to get more stars], as those snack bars are very high in sugar.''

She is not worried about companies trying to cheat or mislead as competitors and the public, as well as the Government, will monitor the system.

Already there have been cries of foul at Nestle giving Milo 4.5 stars, but reading the small print reveals that is only when it is made with skim milk. On its own it would rate one and a-half stars, said Australian consumer advocacy group Choice.

Kellogg's has also been accused of misleading consumers as some of its cereals have only a two-star rating on the front of the pack but an explanatory panel on the side shows a 3.5-star example.

There are other anomalies, such as fruit juice can receive 4.5 stars although it is high in natural sugar.

Some products are not allowed to have star ratings, such as alcoholic beverages, infant formula or sports food supplements.

The system is not intended for foods that are single ingredients such as flour, vinegar, herbs, spices or tea or coffee, or foods that don't normally have a nutrition information panel such as fruits and vegetables or unpackaged or takeaway food.

Nor is it intended to compare different types of food, such as breakfast cereals with fruit juice.

‘‘Because a product has a lot of stars it doesn't mean you should eat a lot of it. It just enables you to compare it with other similar products.''She also has no illusions that it will solve the obesity epidemic.

‘‘What looks good, what tastes good, is what people buy, and what it costs, but the health star rating is another thing in the arsenal to help you make decisions.''

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