HEALTH STARS: Gathering momentum

By Katherine Rich (in Supermarket News) 15 October 2015

It would be interesting to get direct feedback from those who work on the shop floor, but by now I’m hoping most shoppers agree that the voluntary Health Star Rating system is proving to be a very useful tool in helping them quickly and easily identify healthier foods on our supermarket shelves.

The Health Star Rating (HSR) system is straight-forward and easy-to-interpret.  Not only does the star graphic show at a glance how healthy the food is, but it can tell you exactly how much of the four key nutrients it contains.

Unlike a traffic light labelling system, health stars leave no room for confusion. Shoppers can pick up a product they are not familiar with and use the system to get a quick snapshot of how it compares with other options in the same category. And that’s exactly what it’s for.

From the early days of the scheme last year, when companies that stock the breakfast aisle led the way and started putting the distinctive Health Stars on their products, the take-up in industry has been very good. To date the Ministry of Primary Industries has been pleased with the take-up.  

Since then the food shelves have slowly but steadily been filled with more products of all kinds featuring one of the five graphic options. (Pack or label sizes mean not all products can display the full HSR system graphic so five sizes are available).

Of course, there will always be those who say the transition could have been faster, but critics generally seem to be those who have no first-hand knowledge of how complicated and complex labels changes can be. There have been some good reasons for delays, too, as some companies have chosen to reformulate products so they can achieve higher star ratings and offer even healthier choices, and that takes time.

You can’t remove a lot of salt or sugar from a product overnight without risking buyer backlash, so many reformulations have to be done slowly. This continues the great deal of positive work the food industry has been doing for the past decade or so to offer healthier products.

Some people say Health Star system is flawed because it doesn’t let shoppers make comparisons across categories – for example, between potato chips and yoghurt. But that’s a silly criticism, obviously made by people who don’t understand how supermarkets work and how shoppers shop. 

The system is designed to help people as they walk around the supermarket making their selections, such as when they’re choosing between cereals while standing in the breakfast aisle or deciding which yoghurt is a healthier choice in the chilled dairy section.  It helps them make choices within categories and between categories. This is an important point to emphasise.  

Remember that the health stars are awarded to packaged foods by calculating the balance between the positive and the less healthy nutrients they contain. The way that happens is complex, but basically, foods are first split into six categories – food, beverages, oils, spreads, and dairy products (with dairy products broken down further, depending on their calcium content).

A product’s nutrition information (usually on the nutrition information panel on the back of the package) is put into a calculator that applies different values and awards negative points depending on how much energy, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars they contain. (These nutrients were chosen because they were determined to be the risk factors for obesity and diet-related chronic disease).

Positive points are then awarded for good nutrients – protein, fibre, fruit, vegetable, nut or legume content – and the calculator produces a score that is then converted to the star ratings.

The calculations are specific to the categories of food, beverages, oils, spreads and dairy so they can get a result that is as accurate as possible, and that’s why the system is not designed to compare, say, potato chips with cereal. That’s why comparison across categories isn’t possible.

The whole point of HSR is to help people make healthier choices when comparing foods within the same category because that’s the way people shop.