DEBUGGING THE HEALTH STAR RATING SYSTEM

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Let`s start with the brief overview of what The Health Star Rating is, how it all started, how does it work and what is its intention. This information is important to be aware of in order for us to make our (healthy) shopping choices.

The Health Star Rating system (HSR) was developed by the Australian, state and territory governments in collaboration with industry, public health and consumer groups.  It is being implemented from June 2014 on a voluntary basis by the food industry over the next five years, with a formal review at five years, which is now July 2019.

It was developed as an easy way to compare similar packaged food and help you make healthier choices by choosing foods that are higher in positive nutrients and lower in risk nutrients that are linked to obesity and diet-related chronic diseases.

Official definition:  The Health Star Rating is a front-of-pack labelling system that rates the overall nutritional profile of packaged food and assigns it a rating from ½ a star to 5 stars. It provides a quick, easy, standard way to compare similar packaged foods within the same category. The more stars, the healthier the choice- simple!

The more stars, the healthier the choice- simple! Is it?

Hang on, so how come plain yogurt scores 1.5 starts compared to 4 stars for milo snack bar? Lets` have a look at what are the stars based on.

Under the system, packaged products are given a rating based on their nutritional profile, taking into account

  • components that are linked to increased risk of developing chronic diseases, i.e. kilojoules, saturated fat, sodium (salt) and sugar and then it factors in
  • limited list of positive nutrients i.e. fruit, veggies, nuts, legumes, fibre, protein, calcium.

Finally, products are given star rating based on how their health score ranks within their food category:

  • dairy beverages,
  • cheese and processed cheese,
  • other dairy products,
  • non-dairy beverages,
  • oils and spreads and
  • everything else – 85% products displaying the health star rating fall into this category

You see, The Health Star Rating system is designed to compare similar products. That`s why cheese flavoured shapes rank 2.5 stars (everything else category) compared to 2 stars rating on cheese (cheese and processed cheese category).

This allows for generally considered unhealthy products to score high healthy star scores, indicating the product is healthy and therefore misleading customer in making informed, healthier choices when shopping.  Great example is Nutri-Grain cereals (marketing themselves as ironmen food) with 4 stars where one in four spoons is sugar. It may rank high and as a better choice among cereals BUT is it really healthy?

What are some of the main areas of concern in relation to the Health Star Rating

As it is now The Health Star Rating system

  • Ignores preservatives, colours and flavours
  • Doesn`t consider other real, claimed or potential health effects of particular ingredients
  • Doesn`t consider processing methods
  • Doesn`t consider other important nutrients
  • It’s a voluntary system, company can choose just not to display them or which products to put it on. Companies may use it as a marketing advantage to sell more packaged and processed food. Only about 30% of products in Australia have HSR on them
  • The system is not aligned with the Australian Dietary Guidelines, which recommend eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutritious foods every day.
  • Doesn’t necessarily mean the product provides for a complete, balanced diet and should replace items from other core food groups or be eaten to excess.
  • Doesn’t distinguish between the extra sugar that’s added to foods like breakfast cereals, and the naturally occurring sugars in dairy or fruits
  • Messaging ‘the more stars the healthier’ and ‘healthier is easier when you look for the stars’ seems to be misleading in the contexts of making healthy food choices
  • In addition, many healthy foods, like fresh fruit and vegetables and lean meats, are not generally packaged and may not have a Health Star Rating.

 

Does the Health Star Rating system have the potential to be a successful public health intervention?

As mentioned at the beginning of this article The Health Star Rating system is due for a five year review this July 2019. In July 2017, Matthews Pegg Consulting was engaged as the independent reviewer and produced a report with recommendations.

ABC reports:

“Health advocates have been pushing for the Federal Government to adopt a range of recommendations from a draft report into the system, after a review was agreed to by state and federal ministers five years ago.

States and territories were meant to meet this Friday with the Federal Government for the Ministerial forum on food regulation, where the final report’s recommendations were due to be discussed.

But the ABC understands the forum has been delayed.

It is understood agenda items will instead be circulated out of session for approval by ministers.

Momentum appears to be building for change, with submissions on the draft report by most state health departments indicating in-principle support for many of the report’s recommendations.”

To read more about the progress visit http://www.healthstarrating.gov.au/internet/healthstarrating/publishing.nsf/content/home

Bottom Line when making healthy food choices

HSR is designed to compare similar products within the same category in processed and packaged products! To eat healthy, try to avoid this category all together and focus on fresh produce and wholefoods! – Simple 😉

But if you do find yourself in the supermarket scratching your head which product to buy, you can have a quick glance at the health star rating but be mindful of what you have read in this article.

I recommend to have a quick glance at ingredients list at the back as this is the most important information on packaged products.

My five quick tips how to read labels in 5 seconds:

I have put together 5 easy tricks for you to read labels which will help you to make healthier choices in those 5 seconds you have to make a decision. Of course, there is more to it but this guide will give you a great start.

👉Misleading labelling – IGNORE THE HEALTHY NAMES written on the product e.g. healthy, natural, multigrain, no added sugar. These are designed to catch your attention and make you believe that the product is healthy.

👉Flip the product and read the ingredients label – READ THE ACTUAL INGREDIENT LIST. People usually read only the nutrition information table, however if you want to find out presence of any nasties or goodies the label you want to read is the Ingredient List.

👉The LENGTH of the ingredient list. Too many rows can indicate that this product is highly processed. As a rule of thumb 2-3 lines should be ok.

👉What are the FIRST THREE INGREDIENTS on the label – Product ingredients are listed by quantity, from highest to lowest amount. That means that the first listed ingredient is what the manufacturer used the most of. A good rule of thumb is to scan the first three ingredients, because they are the largest part of what you’re eating. Try to choose items that have whole foods listed as the first three ingredients.

👉Do you RECOGNIZE THE WORDS on the ingredient list? We all know what carrots, tomato, flour etc mean, so you know what exactly you are eating. However, if you start seeing numbers and words which you can`t even pronounce the chances are these are the nasty chemicals and toxins you don`t want to feed to your family.

I hope this helps you to make your healthy choices.

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