We are currently bombarded with products that claim to be “low fat,” “Reduced fat,” “all natural” “high in fibre,” and the list goes on! Not only can these claims be confusing and misleading, wading your way through them can be plain frustrating.
The new Health Star Rating system on the other hand is designed to provide consumers with ‘at a glance’ information on the “healthiness” of a product according to the number of stars it is awarded on a scale from 1 to 5
However, the question must be asked, will this system in fact provide consumers with the transparency they deserve to make nutritious choice?
Traffic Light Labelling
felt that this system was likely to ‘over-simplify’ nutrition which would be misleading for consumers. Being met with this resistance, the Health Star system was settled upon after almost 2 years collaboration by a working group with
representatives from food industry, consumer and public health groups.
Despite this collaboration the Australian Food and Grocery Council, continue to criticise the new front of pack labelling system and are likely to be somewhat resistant to the voluntary uptake of the initiative, according to Rosemary Stanton, from the Technical Design Working Group that developed the Health Star initiative. Although there is some evidence to suggest that a star based system will assist consumers make healthier choices, the Traffic-light system has been widely validated and was the preferential labelling system of 9 in 10 of Australian consumers.
Meanwhile in the UK, a combined Traffic-light and nutrition information front of package system has also been voluntarily launched, with backing from all major supermarkets as well as Mars UK, Nestle UK, PepsiCo UK, Premier Foods and McCain Foods. However, UK Cadbury and Coca-Cola, seem to be of the same thinking as the Australian Food and Grocery Council and have failed to sign up to the system.
Rosemary Stanton has said, “One of the consequences of traffic light labelling is that shoppers were less likely to buy products with a red' light - good from a public health and consumer perspective, but unacceptable to the food industry.”
In Australia we already see the Traffic-light system used within schools to teach our children to make healthy choices and there is also a wide variety of phone apps which similarly use the system successfully. However, with
limited consistency across these systems and issues of accessibility, on their own it is unlikely that they will have the impact that a uniformed approach would have.
A poorly defined criteria used to calculate the rating of a product, is a critical flaw in any labelling system implemented.
The potential for the Health Star system to award anomalous ratings has been a significant criticism of the system by the Australian Food and Grocery Council and although we see the preferential Traffic light system implemented within school canteens, a poorly defined criteria similarly has resulted in some questionable ratings.
Products such as Coco Pops breakfast drinks, for instance, have been awarded a canteen approved “green” light, imply they should be included frequently within the diet.
Despite not seeing a uniform system between canteens and front of package labelling, it can be at least hoped that the Health Star system will assist canteens further define the Traffic-light criteria that they currently use. For example ‘green’ products, will need to have a star rating of 4 or more, ‘amber,’ 2.5 - 3.5, and ‘red’ awarded to anything with less than 2.5 stars – although this would only be possible if the system was actually widely taken up.
Although the Health Star initiative will be voluntary for the food industry to adopt during the first 2 years, if the up take is poor then it will become mandatory.
The food industry has demonstrated its capacity to adopt a voluntary front of package labelling system with the Daily Intake Guide (DIG), now currently featured on 7200 Australian products however, this system is preferential for the food industry as it remains to have limited useability for customers and as such is not likely to significantly influence purchasing behaviours, nor require manufactures to improve the ‘healthiness’ of their products. As mentioned, we have seen the UK food industry largely come on board with a transparent, Traffic-light labelling system, but are yet to see the same willingness within Australia.
With increasing consumer awareness and concern over not only the nutrient profile of products, but also
ingredients and country of origin, the Heart Star system will certainly not provide the depth of information many consumers are now seeking, but rather create somewhat of an equal opportunity for all consumers to have ‘at a glance’ nutrition information to assist their purchasing behaviours.