The Health Star Ratings system has come in for fresh criticism after it was discovered that fewer than one in ten supermarket products carry the food packaging labels, but experts still insist they help consumers make healthier choices.
There are also calls for the voluntary system to become compulsory, with a new review claiming that food manufacturers are more likely to put the health stars on foods that score towards the higher end of the five star scale, rather than on more unhealthy products.
Since first appearing on food packaging four years ago, the ratings system has been criticised for confusing consumers, with some foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar, such as some breakfast cereals and flavoured milks, still receiving favourable ratings.
The government-backed ratings scheme is currently under a five-year review, with one key area focusing on how well the system is aligned with Australian Dietary Guidelines.
Researchers from The George Institute for Global Health examined the alignment by calculating a rating for 47,000 food products and determined which were classified as core (healthy) and discretionary (unhealthy) under the national healthy eating guidelines.
They found that health stars were displayed on only 3,524 products – just 7.5 per cent of the sample. It’s estimated that the average supermarket contains at least 15,000 products eligible for the ratings.
Furthermore, it identified 2,219 of the foods the Australian Dietary Guidelines would classify as core foods actually received a low health star rating of just 2 or less. These included mostly cheeses and yoghurts and some other items such as smoked salmon and pate. However, these low scoring items were also high in saturated fat, salt or sugar.
The 4,105 foods classified as discretionary by the Australian Dietary Guidelines scored a rating of 3.5 or above. About a quarter of these foods were chips, breakfast cereals, muesli bars and processed meats that were high in salt and sugar, but 75 per cent were items such as hummus and salsa.
Despite the small percentage of products carrying the labels, experts believe the star ratings are fulfilling their promise of helping consumers make healthier choices, with 97% of the labelled products reviewed deemed to provide sound dietary advice.
Lead author Alexandra Jones, public health lawyer with The George Institute, said: “What we have found demonstrates that the Health Star Rating system… is exactly the sort of tool people need to help them make better food choices. But, we have an obesity crisis in Australia and for Health Star Ratings to be truly useful they need to show us the good and the bad on our shelves.
“Most food manufacturers won’t voluntarily label products that score just one or two stars, but this is what most unhealthy foods rightly score.
“There were some items that received high scores despite being high in sugar and salt, but these really were only a very small number. We need these high profile anomalies to be addressed and for Health Stars to be mandatory so they fully work for consumers, and don’t just act as a marketing tool for food companies,” Ms Jones said.
Food manufacturers are only putting #healthstars ratings on products that score highly. This is why it needs to be mandatory. Our latest study in @Nutrients_MDPI https://t.co/dStxjNq9Py pic.twitter.com/HK9IcMZHZp
— The George Institute (@georgeinstitute) May 14, 2018
Spotlight on salt and sugar
Researchers say the results demonstrate the need for a review of the weighting given to salt in the star ratings system calculator, as such a large number of sauces, savoury snacks and processed meats score highly, despite being high in salt.
They also suggest reviewing whether the scheme deals adequately with sugar, given the large number of products like breakfast cereals, yoghurts and fruit bars that contain a mix of both naturally occurring and added sugars.
The findings also highlight the need for an examination of how core and discretionary products are assigned.
Professor Bruce Neal, Deputy Executive Director of The George Institute, said: “The results show the complexity of defining ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ across the thousands of products available on today’s supermarket shelves. But, flavoured yoghurts high in sugar and saturated fat are unhealthy desserts, not core foods. They should be marked as such. Likewise, writing off every dip or muesli bar as unhealthy is not helpful.
“Consumers are going to eat these products and if they are all labelled with an HSR it will be possible for people to make the best possible choices when they choose them.”
The ratings system is currently under review by the Federal Government, with the results to be delivered in late 2019. Leading health organisations are calling for the inclusion of added sugars into the calculator and for it to become mandatory once improvements have been agreed upon.
“Government should also use the review period to close loopholes and enhance the system. There are some easy fixes that could immediately rectify key issues. They won’t always be popular with industry, but salty, fatty and sugary foods need to be recognised for what they are,” Professor Neal added.