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Food stars changing habits

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The nation’s food ministers are hailing the success of the breakthrough front-of-packet health star labelling system amid evidence that it is changing eating habits and encouraging the production of healthier foods.

The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation was told that 55 companies have adopted the voluntary Health Star Rating system since it was introduced last year, and it is now displayed on more than 1500 food products.

In a sign that the labelling system is exerting an influence, the health ministers noted that “a number of major companies have reformulated some of their most popular products to make them healthier, achieving a higher star rating”.

They were also encouraged by evidence it may be leading to better food choices.

The results of a consumer study presented to the ministers found one in six consumers were changing their shopping behaviour based on the system, and awareness of it had grown from 33 per cent in April to 42 per cent in September.

The system was introduced in controversial circumstances last year when Chief of Staff to the-then Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash ordered the system’s website pulled down just hours after it was launched.

It was later revealed that at the time he retained an interest in a consultancy that had major food manufacturers among its clients, and he was forced to resign.

The website was eventually reinstated late last year.

But although the system is considered to be an advance in food labelling standards, the AMA has said that it should be mandatory, and public health experts are critical of its central message that “the more stars, the healthier the food”.

Professor of Public Health Nutrition at Deakin University, Mark Lawrence, and Christina Pollard of the Curtin University School of Public Health argue that, because it only applies to packaged foods, the system misses the fresh foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, that people should eat most.

And, in an article in The Conversation, they warned that it encouraged food manufacturers to make minor tweaks to their products which would earn them more stars without making significant difference to nutritional value, while avoiding using the system altogether for products that would rate poorly.

Adrian Rollins