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Researchers call for health star ratings to become compulsory

Posted: 23 November 2020 | | No comments yet

Researchers in Melbourne and Auckland say health star rating system should be compulsory, as they believe this will have a more significant effect in improving the nutrition of Australians and New Zealanders.

health star ratings

Researchers say health star ratings should become law in New Zealand and Australia to help drive consumers towards healthier choices - do you agree?

More evidence has emerged that food labelling can encourage manufacturers to improve product nutrition, but University of Melbourne experts say the health star rating system in Australia and New Zealand must be made compulsory to make a big difference.

The team (from the University of Melbourne, the University of Auckland, and the George Institute for Global Health) analysed product nutrition labels in Sydney and Auckland supermarkets to see if the Health Star Rating system (HSR) made a difference to how the food industry formulates food.

What is the Health Star Rating system?

It is mandatory to include nutritional information on the back of packaged Australian and New Zealand foods, but HSR labels – which have appeared on the front since 2014 and rate a food from 0.5 (least healthy) to five (most healthy) stars – is voluntary.

A study of food industry response to the HSR system, published in PLOS Medicine, has confirmed that HSR labelling causes some products to become healthier.1

The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation introduced the voluntary front-of-pack HSR, with a published HSR calculator deciding how many stars a food gets. HSR labels aim to improve diets by encouraging consumers to choose healthier products and prompting manufacturers to reformulate their products to be healthier.

Making the HSR mandatory would generate substantially greater public health benefits than the current voluntary system.

This study looked at the reformulation effects of HSR labels. Researchers analysed nutrition and labelling information on packaged products in four major New Zealand supermarkets annually from 2013, and Sydney supermarkets Aldi, Coles, IGA, and Woolworths from 2014.1

They tracked the nutrition information of 58,905 unique packaged food products to see if HSR labelling led to nutrient composition changes. Using the HSR calculator, they also scored unlabelled products to allow control comparisons.

According to the study, products that elected to display the health star rating on-pack were 6.5 and 10.7 percent more likely to increase their HSR score by 0.5 stars than those that didn’t display the stars in Australia and New Zealand respectively.1

The study showed that New Zealand products with a HSR showed a four percent decline in salt content, while Australian products fell by 1.4 percent. The HSR was associated with a 2.3 percent decrease in sugar content in New Zealand and a statistically insignificant 1.1 percent decline in Australia.1

The healthiest products that would have scored four to five stars showed little healthier reformulation – most reformulation occurred in less healthy products with HSR labels.

Small changes can have a big impact

Lead author and University of Melbourne Research Fellow Dr Laxman Bablani said, that while the improvements sounded small, even modest changes could lead to big health impacts at a population level.

“If the labels were compulsory, the impact could be much greater, as HSR adoption by the unhealthiest products was less than half that of the healthiest products,” Dr Bablani said.

University of Auckland Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu added that HSR could have a much bigger influence if more unhealthy products adopted it. “Our study suggests that the total effect of HSR on supporting healthier population diets could be markedly increased if it was adopted by many more products,” she said. “In short, it suggests that making the HSR mandatory would generate substantially greater public health benefits than the current voluntary system.”

References 

  1. https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1003427
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