Should You Pay Attention to Health Stars?

You may have seen those blue and white health stars twinkling at you from all sorts of food boxes in your pantry, fridge or local supermarket isles. 


They may even have swayed you to pick a certain muesli bar, loaf of bread or yoghurt over the other, under the assumption you’re getting a healthier product.


But is it really a case of “The more stars, the healthier”? Sorry to take the shine off… it’s a little more complex than that. 


In light of the 2019 release of a Health Star Rating review 5 years in the making, here’s what you need to know about Health Stars.


What is the Health Star Rating system? 


First, let’s go back to basics. Health Star Ratings are a front-of-pack food labelling system used throughout Australia and New Zealand. It was initially introduced to address the region’s growing waistlines and rates of lifestyle disease by allegedly allowing consumers to make healthier food choices. 


In theory, the system is supposed to help you compare the nutritional profile of similar products typically seen in the same part of the shop (yoghurt with yoghurt, cereal with cereal etc). It gives each food product a rating from ½ to 5 stars – with more stars (apparently) showing a healthier choice.


How does it work?

 

According to this Health Star Rating fact sheet, packaged food products are given a rating based on their nutritional profile, according to a strict (and very complicated) algorithm known as the “Health Star Rating Calculator” (HSR). 


This includes the given product’s energy (kilojoules); risk nutrients (saturated fat, salt and sugars); and positive nutrients (fibre, protein and the proportion of fruit, vegetable, nut and legumes). Star ratings for all products are calculated based on either 100g or 100mL, which is meant to make for easy comparison between similar products. 


The more stars, the healthier?


Sounds like a good idea, right? But here’s the thing… when the system spits out its findings, regular old milk ends up getting 4 stars. Up & Go (with its ingredients list as long as your arm) and Milo (yep the chocolate literally almost half sugar) both get 4.5 stars. Huh? 


In fact, full-cream unsweetened natural yoghurts often score significantly lower than sugary fruit yoghurts, while fruit juice (flagged by the World Health Organisation as a problem product) consistently scores four or even five stars.


What’s going on?!


Stars and Sugar 


One huge issue we take with the Health Star Rating system is that the current algorithm treats added sugars and naturally occurring sugars as the same thing


This allows Big Food to effectively game the system, allowing unhealthy products packed with added sugar to appear as a healthy choice (hello, 4.5-star Milo rating).


Health Stars, we have a problem. 


Another key problem is that it’s not supposed to be an indication of the absolute healthiness of a product – it’s meant to compare muesli bar with muesli bar, rather than muesli bar with a handful of nuts and an apple. But this message, we argue, is far from clear. 


Let’s be real, if the average consumer sees five stars on that muesli bar packet without fully understanding the system (and its ridiculously complex algorithm), of course they’re going to think they’re making an overall healthy choice. 


Fact is, our diets should be based around whole, unprocessed food wherever possible, but a system whose slogan is “the more stars, the healthier”, however noble, is driving already confused consumers away from the fresh fruit and veg aisles and into the grips of Big Food and Big Sugar. 


Add to this the glaring problem that above-mentioned Big Food sits on the Health Star advisory panel! We have a tiny suspicion an industry driven by its bottom line isn’t going to be so keen on designing and supporting a system that puts healthy wholefood first. 


AND, if you’re a food producer and you don’t like your Health Star Rating, you can just NOT put it on your packaging! That’s right, the system isn’t mandatory. 


As Dr Kieron Rooney, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney told the Sydney Morning Herald: "The HSR is not much more than a marketing tool for industry.”


The 2019 review 


A 5-year review of the Health Star system was released in June 2019. It’s currently being looked over by members of the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation.


The review recommends the system remain voluntary, with “minor changes” suggested with respect to algorithm and governance.


According to consumer groups and public health experts like CHOICE, it was a “missed opportunity”. We have to agree. 


“The report's modest recommendations do not go far enough to penalise unhealthy foods,” said CHOICE food policy expert Linda Przhedetsky on release of the review. “The report's recommendations give manufacturers a green light to keep packing food with added sugar and salt, while cashing in on undeserved high Health Star Ratings.”


So, where does that leave us? While we welcome the current Health Star rating review and eagerly await a response from the Forum (maybe at long last, they WILL recognise added sugar and penalise products!), we simply can’t support such a flawed system until major changes are made.

For now, we recommend taking those stars with a HUGE grain of sugary salt.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.