Katherine Rich: The truth about the health stars

19 August 2016

Shoppers will have noticed the significant rollout of the Health Star Rating (HSR) labelling system for packaged foods over the past 12 months. There are now more than 1000 products carrying Health Stars, allowing shoppers to make comparisons between products within grocery categories.

So far most of the responses to the new information system have been positive, but recently a few commentators have started to share information about the HSR system which is not correct.

Former lawyer turned blogger Claire Deeks has been very vocal in attacking the labelling system, and has set up a petition calling on the Government to scrap it. In particular, she feels it is “fundamentally flawed” because it compares food products only within categories, for example breakfast cereals with other breakfast cereals, or dairy products with other dairy products, but not products overall.

What she doesn’t understand is that the HSR system was designed as a tool to help shoppers as they walk down the aisles in the supermarket. That’s why it makes perfect sense to compare products within a given category – because that’s the way people shop. While standing in the breakfast cereal aisle, shoppers want to choose between breakfast cereal products. They aren’t deciding between buying breakfast cereal and dairy.

Ms Deeks has also makes comments regarding the Health Star Ratings and sugar content, to create the impression that the system is soft on its approach to sugar. This is simply not true. Experts on how the HSR mathematic formula works are confident that high sugar products are dealt with severely by the system.  If something is high in sugar, particularly without any offsetting factors such as fruit, vegetables and fibre, a product will get a low star rating.

Ms Deeks has also called for the HSR system to be replaced by sugar labels that show the number of teaspoons of sugar on the front of the pack. But going down that route perpetuates a reductionist approach to food. People eat foods, not single nutrients, and by focusing on just one factor naturally overlooks other food constituents such as fat and salt. Focusing on one constituent at the expense of all others just adds to the confusion for many people.

The benefit of Health Star Ratings is that they look at the whole food to help people make healthier choices.  The system looks at the overall nutrition the food delivers to people. The aim is to point shoppers to healthier packaged foods with categories so they can see instantly how much energy, salt, fat, and sugar is in a product and make a comparative decision based on that. Not everyone understands nutrition panels, so this quick and easy solution on the front of packs makes it easier to identify more healthy choices.

While Ms Deeks is unhappy that the system doesn’t take into account things like what sort of flavours, colours, preservatives or additives are used, these are more about personal preference than ones that affect the nutrition delivered by food.

Sure, it’s a government-led initiative but it’s not an attempt to endorse particular packaged foods. What the government does, through the Ministry of Health's work, is endorse New Zealand’s Food and Nutrition Guidelines which can be found on the ministry’s website. The guidelines are clear about the recommended servings of fruit, vegetables, protein, grains and dairy. The Food and Grocery Council endorses these guidelines, too. The guidelines provide interested Kiwis with a superior source of dietary advice.

(As published in Supermarket News)