Katherine Rich: May the health stars be with you

15 April 2016

It’s star wars – but not as we know it! The Government’s campaign to increase shoppers’ understanding and awareness of the food Health Star Rating system promises to be putting stars in our eyes for some time to come – through to June 2018, in fact. It’s certainly a comprehensive campaign, especially in the first three months.

Put together by the Health Promotion Agency, the Health Ministry, and the Ministry for Primary Industries, the ‘Healthier is easier when you look for Health Stars’ campaign seems to be aimed at all the right areas.

Online videos are being pushed on Facebook, YouTube, and the on-demand channels of TVNZ and TV3. Supermarkets will play their part, with advertisements in Countdown’s national printed product mailer and in New World’s digital mailer, between them reaching millions of households. There are also posters in bus shelters at 125 locations near supermarkets in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. In-store, there will be banners and large floor decals in the cereal aisles of some supermarkets.

The social media videos are aimed at informing household shoppers that packaged goods with a higher star rating are healthier choices, and I think they do a good job. They combine good information with some classic Kiwi humour, and it would be good to see them “shared” around and even become identified with good food. If you haven’t seen the ‘Healfy Bits’ talking cereal boxes, they’re worth a look.

This coverage will add to the fast-growing number of stars that are appearing on supermarket shelves – at last count there were more than 1000 products sporting the front-of-pack logos, with more being added every week.

There’s been a lot of talk about HSR since the Government announced it in late 2014, but the beauty of it is that it’s a simple way for shoppers going down the supermarket aisles to tell instantly what’s healthier within a specific category. And that’s a key point. HSR is designed to help shoppers make choices within food categories, not across categories. For example, it helps them make a selection when they are deciding between cereals while they’re in the breakfast aisle or deciding which yoghurt is a healthier choice when they’re in the chilled dairy section.

Not everyone understands nutrition panels, so this quick and easy solution will make it easier for them to identify more healthy choices, and I'm confident that once they see how easy it is, they’ll embrace it.

To recap, the scheme works like this:

Stars are awarded to packaged foods depending on the balance between the good and bad nutrients they contain. It’s a complex process, but basically, foods are first split into categories – food, beverages, oils, spreads, and dairy products.

A product’s nutrition information is then 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 are the risk factors for obesity and diet-related chronic disease. Positive points are awarded for good nutrients – protein, fibre, fruit, vegetable, nut or legume content – and the calculator produces a score that is converted to between ½ and 5 stars.

Some people say HSR is flawed because it doesn’t include fresh fruit and vegetables, but if anyone really thinks we should be putting stickers on carrots and apples to tell shoppers they are a healthy choice then even the slickest and most expensive campaign in the world will be a waste of time.

There’s one other benefit of the system: in recent years the food industry has been working hard to make products healthier by removing sugar, salt and fat, and the introduction of HSR is furthering that as companies reformulate at an even greater pace so they can achieve even higher star ratings. And hopefully then we will all benefit from everyone making healthier choices.

(as published in Supermarket News)