The Australian health star rating system on packaged food is of litte value as it lacks rigour and is subject to manipulation by manufacturers, nutrition experts say.
The current system should be changed so core foods such as fruit, vegetables, lean meats, nuts and seeds are rewarded more clearly under the star rating, they said in an editorial published this month in Public Health Research & Practice.
The health star rating, developed back in 2014 and funded by the Australian state and territory governments is a front-of-pack labelling system rating the nutritional profile of packaged food.
The number of stars on a product is determined using a nutritional calculator developed in consultation with Food Standards Australia New Zealand and nutrition experts, with one star being less healthy and five stars suggesting the product is a sound nutritional choice.
Participation in the system is voluntary, with manufacturers and retailers free to calculate the rating with the algorithm, and display their results accurately on the food item.
The system was designed to encourage the manufacture of healthier food.
But as the editorial points out, the current system has a loophole that allows companies to be awarded points for adding “healthy” ingredients to unhealthy products.
One of the editorial authors, Dr Helen Vidgen (PhD) told The Medical Republic companies could game the star system by simply adding ingredients such as protein or fibre.
“You want them to be decreasing their sugar content or decreasing their fat content to make their product healthier,” said Dr Vidgen, who is a senior lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology.
“We need to primarily be promoting a pattern of healthy eating overall and at the moment, the government is predominantly putting all of its energy into the health star rating system,” Dr Vidgen said.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines provide a more rounded approach to food, emphasising servings of whole foods to consumers, rather than nutritional units.
“The health star rating doesn’t have the same rigour behind it – what’s the cutoff for the amount of sugar in a product, or how many ‘points’ should we award for having a fruit element?” Dr Vidgen said.
Dr Vidgen also said the Australian government needed to invest in nutrition more broadly, and it was time for a new national nutrition policy, given that the last policy was released in 1992.
“It’s incredible when you think about how different our food supply is now and how different the way we eat is now,” Dr Vidgen said.
The Medical Republic contacted the front-of-pack labelling secretariat for comment but they are yet to respond.
Public Health Research & Practice, March 2019, Volume 29 (1).