Are health star ratings giving sugary products a health halo? We look at criticism of the ratings and what can be done to fix the system.

The controversy started in the cereal aisle. Weet-Bix rating as a five-star breakfast food didn’t ruffle any feathers. But when Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain and Nestle’s Milo cereal made an entrance with four stars, criticism of the health star ratings followed. Both products are more than a quarter sugar.

Health star ratings feature on about 1500 packaged foods. It’s the cereal aisle where they’ve been the most numerous and caused the most commotion. But ratings flak is spreading to other aisles as more stars come out.

Nestle has been in the gun for the 4.5-star rating on its chocolate powdered Milo drink. Across the Tasman, high star ratings on chips and confectionery have also met with disapproving sounds.

Our survey

Health star ratings are intended to make it easier for consumers to choose healthier options. Backed by governments on both sides of the Tasman, they’re being rolled out voluntarily by food manufacturers. At last count, 22 companies here were using the ratings on at least some of their products.

Our recent survey research with Australian consumer watchdog Choice found most shoppers are aware of the ratings. Sixty-one percent of Kiwi consumers have seen the stars on food packaging and the majority (75 percent) would like to see them on more products.

Have you seen the health star ratings on food packaging?

Among those aware of the ratings, 22 percent refer to them often, 39 percent sometimes, with the rest (39 percent) rarely or never using them. Shoppers who use the ratings tend to look at additional information on the pack such as the ingredients list (60 percent) and nutrition information panel (69 percent).

Most shoppers (63 percent) think the ratings help them make healthier food choices. However, one in five (20 percent) disagree.

Results suggest high star ratings on sugary foods are affecting consumer perceptions of the scheme. A significant proportion want changes in how star ratings are displayed on these products to ensure shoppers can make informed choices about what they’re buying.

Star ratings are calculated on the positive and negative nutrients in a food. The positive parts, such as fibre and protein, can offset the negative – think sugar, saturated fat and sodium. It’s the reason why some high-sugar products can still get high stars.

A majority of respondents felt ratings should be mandatory on foods with high levels of sugar, fat or sodium: 21 percent wanted a limit on the number of stars these foods could display. Twelve percent thought the products shouldn’t be allowed to display any stars. Just 13 percent were happy with the status quo.

Our survey also found overwhelming support for labelling of added sugars in processed foods. Existing labelling rules only require manufacturers to list total sugars. There’s no distinction between intrinsic sugars – those present in fruit, veges and milk – and added sweeteners, such as sucrose, glucose, honey and syrups.

Eighty percent of respondents wanted added sugars to be clearly labelled in the ingredients list; 71 percent also thought manufacturers should be required to list both total and added sugars in the nutrition information panel.

OUR DATA are from a joint survey with Australian consumer organisation Choice that was carried out online in July 2016. Results are based on a nationally representative sample of 530 New Zealanders and 1010 Australians. Unless otherwise stated, data reported in this article are for the New Zealand sample. Figures have been rounded so results may add to +/- 100 percent.

Under review

The trans-Tasman Health Star Rating Advisory Committee, responsible for monitoring the voluntary roll-out and providing advice to government ministers, has begun a two-year progress review. Labelling consistency, ratings use and the nutritional value of products carrying the stars are on the agenda.

Together with Choice, we’ve written to the committee providing recommendations to address consumer concerns.

Our key recommendation is for star ratings to be capped at a low level on foods high in sugar, saturated fat or sodium. If sugary snacks can qualify for high ratings, we think consumers will increasingly lose confidence in the system. High star ratings on these foods also risk misleading shoppers that the products are a better choice.

In line with the World Health Organization’s recommendation to limit intake of added sugars, we’ve asked the committee to investigate amending the rating calculations to specifically account for these ingredients. At present, star ratings are calculated on total sugars: added sugars don’t score any extra penalty points.

We’re also calling for the rating guidelines to be amended to prevent manufacturers basing calculations on unrealistic assumptions about how the product will be prepared – the Milo problem (see “Is this fair?”).

The committee is expected to provide its report to government ministers by the end of this year. A further five-year review is scheduled for 2019.