HEALTH STARS: Benefits aplenty

By Katherine Rich (in Food NZ) 19 October 2015

As more food products with the Health Star Rating logo appear on supermarket shelves, it’s time to address several of the unfounded but popular criticisms that surround what’s proving to be an excellent system.

There’s been a lot of talk about HSR since our Government announced last year it would adopt Australia’s voluntary front-of-pack labelling system. From day 1, some were saying it was the wrong system, and that a traffic lights system would have been better, while others said it should have been compulsory for industry to comply.

The HSR system is a pragmatic, easy-to-interpret system.  There’s no doubt a traffic light system such as that promoted by public health activists was too flawed to be effective. Anything that evaluates individual nutrients but does not give an overall rating to food, and is based only on negative nutrients, was never going to give consumers a complete picture. What’s more, traffic light labels ran the risk of sending confusing signals and misleading shoppers.

As for making HSR compulsory, there’s no point doing that when industry is prepared to implement the scheme on a voluntary basis, not to mention it would be close to impossible to enforce given the large amount of imported foods.  The other issue is that HSR is not the only labelling system that aims to give consumers helpful information. It’s already used either in conjunction with or separate to schemes such as the Heart Foundation’s Tick, Be Treatwise, and the Daily Intake Guide.

Thankfully, since products with the HSR logo started appearing on shelves towards the end of last year, led strongly by the breakfast aisle, these arguments have died down, probably because critics can see that the logos are instantly recognisable and simple to understand. You don’t need to be a food scientist (or a university academic) to work out what’s healthier within a category as you go about your weekly grocery shop.

And this is a key point. The system helps consumers make choices within food categories.  Some have criticised the scheme because it does not allow comparisons across categories, for example between potato chips and yoghurt. But that is a silly criticism made by people who clearly don’t understand the system.  The HSR is designed to help people as they walk around the supermarket making their selections, such as when they are deciding between cereals while standing in the breakfast aisle or deciding which yoghurt is a healthier choice in the chilled dairy section. 

To recap, this is how the Health Star Ratings work.

Stars are awarded to packaged foods depending on the balance between the good and bad nutrients they contain. The process is complex, but in a nutshell, 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 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 were chosen because they were determined to be the risk factors for obesity and diet-related chronic disease. Positive points are then awarded for the good nutrients the food contains – protein, fibre, fruit, vegetable, nut or legume content – and the calculator produces a score that is converted to star ratings.

Because the calculations used to determine each product’s rating are specific to each of the six categories in order to get a result that is as accurate as possible, 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. If you’re in the breakfast cereal aisle, that’s where you choose breakfast cereal, nothing else. If you’re in the confectionery aisle, that’s where you choose confectionery. Shoppers wouldn’t think “shall I buy this 2 star breakfast cereal or these 2 star lollies”.

The Ministry for Primary Industries sums it up like this: “The system is designed to help consumers choose between similar foods at the point of purchase, so it works best for choices between foods that might usually be seen as alternative choices (e.g breakfast cereals).  Research with New Zealand consumers in 2013 showed that the Health Star Rating system helps consumers identify healthier foods when faced with a choice.”

Some critics also say HSR is flawed because it doesn’t include fresh fruit and vegetables. There’s only one answer to that: if anyone seriously thinks we should be putting star rating stickers on carrots and apples to tell shoppers they are a healthy choice then we have a serious educational issue that is far greater than the best labelling system would solve in 100 years.  

There is one other benefit of the HSR system: in recent years the food industry has been particularly proactive when comes to making products healthier by removing sugar, salt and fat, and the introduction of HSR is furthering that as companies continue to reformulate to achieve even higher star ratings to better help shoppers make healthier choices.