Health star ratings is the world’s best food labelling system, say experts

There’s confusion, doubt and lack of trust among Australian shoppers about our two-year-old health-star rating system, but experts say it’s the world’s best.

Alexandra Jones from Sydney University said her analysis of 18 front-of-pack nutrition labelling systems used in 50 countries found the health-star rating system was most effective and Australia was on the right path towards improving diets.

“I’m aware of the issues around how consumers are interacting with the labels. I can see how Milo with its 4.5 health stars can create public distrust,” said Ms Jones, a PhD candidate at the university’s Charles Perkins Centre.

“But I think the focus should be on how these labels impact manufacturers to reformulate and improve their products.”

Big brands such as Kellogg’s and Uncle Tobys have reformulated their products, cutting salt and sugar, to achieve higher ratings since the voluntary rating scheme was rolled out in 2014.

Ms Jones said labelling systems that combine both numbers and a graphical component, such as health stars or Britain’s traffic light system, were most effective.

The least effective were “reductive” systems, which only show nutritional information with no opinion or recommendations, such as the Daily Intake Guide, introduced by the Australian Food & Grocery Council in 2006.

“The industry has a history of voluntarily adopting these kinds of labels as a strategy for delaying stronger public health measures that may impact profits made off unhealthy products,” Ms Jones said.Weet-Bix has five health stars.

She found two-thirds of the 18 labelling systems analysed were initiated by governments, including Sweden’s Nordic Keyhole scheme.

Industry-led food initiatives, such as the Guideline Daily Amounts in South-East Asia, were more likely to be reductive.

Milo was a winner at Choice's Shonky Awards in 2016.
Milo was a winner at Choice’s Shonky Awards in 2016. 

Ms Jones said health star ratings offered better incentives for foodmakers to reformulate compared to systems that feature binary “yes/no” symbols, such as Singapore’s Healthier Choices logo or Chile’s new “stop sign” warning labels,

Salt was the most commonly measured nutrient – included in three-quarters of all food-labelling systems – followed by fats, total sugars and energy content.

The federal government has spent millions of dollars promoting health star ratings.
The federal government has spent millions of dollars promoting health star ratings. 

Ms Jones, who will be presenting her research at the Food Governance Conference at Sydney University this week, said she hoped health stars will become mandatory in Australia.

Professor Corinna Hawkes from the Centre for Food Policy at City University of London said Australia’s system was rigorously developed and among the few properly designed.

“Different consumers are going to react in different ways. It’s effective for people with a high intention to eat well, but not so for those who look for other qualities or are too busy.”

Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, who helped design the system, said all food-labelling systems needed a watchdog to ensure that companies apply it in a way that is useful for consumers.

She said the health-star system has potential but can be misleading – for example, Milo slapped a 4.5 star rating based on use with skim milk and Kellogg’s made small changes to Nutri-Grain in order to claim four stars, despite “fact that a quarter of what you pour into your breakfast bowl is sugar”.

“Decreases in content of sugar, salt or saturated fat may also make a product appear to be a better choice, but doesn’t necessarily equate to a healthy choice,” she said.

“The products we most need to increase, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, deserve the highest rating but rarely carry labels.”

The Australian Food & Grocery Council, of which Nestle (Milo) and Kellogg’s (Nutri-Grain) are members, said its role in helping create the system was a key reason for the “rapid” take-up in the past two years.

Health-stars ratings now feature on 5000 products.

“We’ve moved well beyond the ‘either/or’ debate. The AFGC’s advice has consistently been that companies should assess the range of front-of-pack labelling schemes according to what is most appropriate in terms of providing information to the consumers,” said a spokesman for the council.

The two-year review of the health-star system is expected by mid-2017, with a formal review after five years provided by June 2019.

Professor Hawkes will deliver the Sydney University conference’s opening night speech on Tuesday. She will argue the biggest issue preventing change in the food system is a lack of governance.

[Source:-The Sydeny Morning Herald]