We’ve been campaigning for better food labelling for years and our food fight continues.
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The health star rating (HSR) is a way for consumers to easily compare similar packaged foods. But it’s got loopholes that need to be fixed.
A mandatory system: The rating system is voluntary, making it nigh on impossible to compare all the products you’ll find on supermarket shelves. Food manufacturers can also cherry-pick which products to label. Three out of four Kiwis agree health stars need to be on more products.
Caps on ratings: Foods high in sugar, sodium or saturated fat can score high ratings because positive nutrients, such as fibre, can offset the bad. Ratings need to be capped so sugary and saturated fat- and salt-laden foods don’t get an undeserved health halo from a high health star rating.
Added sugars downgraded: Ratings don’t distinguish between added sugars and intrinsic sugars, such as sugars in fruit, vegetables and dairy products. It’s the added sugars we need to cut back on and ratings need to reflect this.
Ratings calculated for products “as sold”: Companies can calculate the HSR on an “as prepared” basis. This means a sugary drinking chocolate powder can boost its rating if it's prepared with skim milk. We want ratings to be calculated on an “as sold” basis (with an exception for products made up with water or that need to be drained).
Food labels only tell you the total sugar in a product, not how much is added. So you can’t work out how much of the sugar is naturally occurring, such as the lactose in milk, or fructose in fruit. You can’t rely on the ingredients list either, because there are more than 40 different aliases for added sugar.
The Food Standards Code lets companies use the generic name “vegetable oils” in the ingredients list. However, some vegetable oils, such as coconut and palm oil, are high in saturated fat so aren’t a healthier choice. And many of us want to avoid palm oil because of the environmental damage caused by palm plantations. For most products, there’s also no requirement to label trans fats, even though healthy eating guidelines recommend we cut back on them.
Consumers have the right to know where their food comes from. Our 2017 survey found 71% of Kiwis wanted country of origin labelling on fruit and vege.
While companies must be able to back up “organic” claims on their products, there’s no mandatory standard they have to meet. That leaves the system open to abuse by companies that make misleading organic claims.
Although shoppers pay a premium for free range eggs, just one in five are confident they get what they’re paying for. We’re not surprised – there’s no standard definition of free range. To add to the confusion, different certification schemes have different requirements.
It’s voluntary for manufacturers to put labels on alcoholic drinks warning of the risks of drinking when pregnant. The result is many products have no labels. Those that do have inconsistent logos and wording. Research has shown some consumers misunderstand the logos, believing some alcohol during pregnancy is OK.
Alcohol can also significantly contribute to energy intake, but it’s exempt from requirements for energy or nutrition information labelling. This makes it tough to assess how alcohol can add to your waistline.
You can read submissions we’ve written here.