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Health Star Rating – five years on

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Five years ago I authored a column in Australian Medicine advising members that after concerted advocacy on the need for easy to improve food labelling, the AMA had been recognised as a key stakeholder and invited to join the Front of Pack Labelling Stakeholder Working Group.

The Group, chaired by Jane Halton AO PSM, then Secretary of the Federal Department of Health and Ageing, was tasked with developing a new approach to front-of-pack labelling that would help consumers identify healthier packaged food options.

We recognised that the Nutrition Information Panel was too complex, and often too small to help consumers. The move also recognised that there was some level of dissatisfaction with the two most popular front-of-pack labelling approaches at the time. I welcomed the invitation to participate but am sure there was a level of scepticism about whether this diverse group of stakeholders could work together to create and implement a system that would support Australians to make healthier choices.

Five years on and the AMA has just lodged its submission to the Five Year Evaluation of the Health Star Rating system. Health Star Ratings (HSR) are now found on over 7,000 products, produced by 122 manufacturers, in major supermarkets Coles, Woolworths and Aldi. It appears that the HSR system is largely working as intended.  A representative survey conducted with 1000 participants recently found that:

  • 59 per cent were aware of the Health Star Rating system;
  • 50 per cent were likely to use HSR on a regular basis; and
  • Of those using HSR, 33 per cent recalled buying a different product because it had a higher HSR.

Some food producers are reformulating their products in order to achieve a higher HSR. Regardless of the motive, removing unnecessary salt, sugar and fats from processed foods is beneficial. The AMA’s submission has recommended monitoring the number of reformulations to provide important insights into the effectiveness of the HSR system in driving change.

Consumers report that they would like to see HSR on more products.  If uptake in a particular food category is low it can make comparisons difficult. The HSR system is currently voluntary, but it is essential that the food industry recognises the benefit to consumers and displays the HSR on as many products as possible. On this point, the AMA’s submission argued that any slowing of uptake should result in active consideration of the HSR becoming mandatory.

There have been some vocal critics of the HSR, but the reality is that most are not responsible for the weekly grocery shopping, the target audience for HSR. The criticisms typically focus on three issues. Firstly, that the system can’t be used to compare a can of baked beans with a tub of yogurt. This was never the intention of the HSR, rather instead it helps consumers compare similar products in order to identify the healthiest option.

Further criticism highlights that certain foods receive an inappropriately high HSR. The HSR Advisory Committee takes these concerns seriously. For example, the rules around products that display HSR based on how they are prepared (cake mixes, powdered soup, sauce mixes or drink flavourings) are currently under review.  

Finally, some advocate that HSR apply to fresh foods. This was never the intention, with the HSR applying only to manufactured and processed products. A general principle that “fresh is best” is recognised by the AMA and we continue to advocate for more public education on nutrition. The HSR isn’t perfect, but it is certainly much better than nothing.

The AMA submission also advocates that HSR play a role in helping consumers to reduce consumption of ‘added sugars’ through penalisation of these additions. A recent report by the George Institute found that 70 per cent of packaged foods contain added sugars. Current labelling doesn’t provide any distinction between naturally occurring and added sugars, making it extremely difficult for consumers to identify products that contain unnecessary added sugars. Food labelling alone will not address obesity, but supporting consumers to identify healthier food products will play a part.

 PROFESSOR GEOFF DOBB
AMA BOARD MEMBER

 The AMA’s submission is available from: submission/ama-submission-five-year-review-health-star-rating-system

 

 

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