Health star review fails to fix ratings

Health stars yet to shine.

Cereal box with health star rating

Health star ratings (HSRs) started appearing on packaged foods five years ago. We’ve been campaigning for changes to the rating system to make it a better tool for consumers to pick healthier products.

A recent review, presented to the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation, has recommended some improvements but we don’t think they go far enough.

We’re disappointed the review recommends health stars remain voluntary. We think the system should be mandatory so consumers can easily compare all products on supermarket shelves. The review recommends it only becomes compulsory if stars aren’t on 70% of products within five years. This means companies can still cherry pick their “best-performing” products and avoid putting stars on their worst.

Added sugars – the extra sweeteners in processed foods – also get a free pass. That’s despite healthy eating guidelines advising we need to significantly reduce the amount we eat. Total sugars will be more heavily penalised in ratings calculations, reducing the HSRs of 5% of products, but there’s no change to the way added sugars are treated.

The review does have some useful recommendations, including changing the way star ratings are calculated for fruit juices. Despite many being high in sugar, they can earn four or five stars. The new approach would see 100% fruit and vegetable juices scoring between 2.5 and four stars, depending on their sugar and energy content.

The review also recommends fruit and vegetables that are fresh, frozen or canned (with no added sugar, salt or fat) automatically receive five stars. This would ensure juices don’t score higher than their whole equivalent.

For the chop is the use of the energy icon on its own. The icon states the number of kilojoules and companies can opt to use it instead of health stars. It’s usually put on products that would get a low star rating, such as drinks and confectionery. Research found just 4% of consumers found it provided sufficient information.

There’s some better news on the added sugar front. Food ministers have asked Food Standards Australia New Zealand to review nutrition labelling for added sugars. Ministers noted listing added sugars in the nutrition information panel (NIP) (usually found on the back of the pack) was the best option to help consumers make informed choices. They also agreed a pictorial approach – such as teaspoons of sugar – on sugary drinks should be considered.

If added sugars are put in the NIP, there will be no excuses for health stars not to penalise them too.

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