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Healthy food choices in the stars

17 Jun 2013

Shoppers will soon be able to use a simple front-of-packet star rating system to quickly gauge how healthy and nutritious food is following trans-Tasman agreement on a new food labelling scheme.

Australia and New Zealand ministers responsible for the regulation of food have approved the introduction of a five-star rating system for food packaging following a key meeting late last week.

Under the Health Star Rating system, food will be assigned an easy-to-read star rating based on a nutrient profiling system developed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, with food rated from half a star to five stars. The more stars, the greater the nutritional value of the food.

In addition to the stars, the front-of-packet information panel includes details of a food’s energy content, as well as how much saturated fat, sugar, sodium and one other positive nutrient (such as calcium or fibre) it contains.

Food packets carrying the star rating and associated information are expected to begin appearing on shop shelves around mid-2014.

Significantly, the ministers have put the food industry on notice that if, after two years, it has not voluntarily adopted the system, the change will be made mandatory.

The AMA and other health groups have hailed the landmark move as an important development in tackling the nation’s rapidly growing obesity problem, with indications that more than 60 per cent of adults and 25 per cent of children are overweight or obese.

But food manufacturers have won an important exemption in the system. Soft drinks and confectionary will not receive a star rating, though manufacturers will be required to display energy content.

AMA Vice President Professor Geoffrey Dobb said the decision was a major win for public health.

“The ministers have earned a gold star for backing a labelling system that will make it easier for people to make informed choices about healthy foods,” Professor Dobb said.

In a statement following the meeting, Health Minister Tanya Plibersek said the new system was an important step in alleviating the nation’s future burden of chronic disease associated with overweight and obesity.

“Today more than four million Australians are obese, and almost 10 million are overweight,” Ms Plibersek said. “Overweight translates into chronic diet-related diseases, hospitalisations and a significant rise in long-term care, so this is a significant step in assisting consumers make informed choices.”

The move has come amid mounting pressure from the AMA and other health groups to improve food labelling to make it easier and quicker for consumers to assess the nutritional value of products.

Poor food choices are seen as contributing to the nation’s mounting weight problem, with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimating that 62 per cent of adults - 12 million people – were overweight or obese in 2007-08, along with one in four children.

The AMA was part of a working group on food packaging that for the past two years has been developing the star labelling system presented to the ministers on Friday.

The group included representatives from the food industry as well as public health and consumer groups.

Professor Dobb said the system, similar to other star rating schemes, would be simple for consumers to understand and use, and was underpinned by sound evidence regarding what works.

“The star rating system is the result of two years of hard work by representatives of government, the food industry, public health groups and consumer groups,” he said. “It is based on strong science, proven health advice, market research – and a large dose of common sense.”

Professor Dobb said the star system was a “sound step in the right direction” to help families make more informed food choices.

“It is a good compromise that takes into account industry issues as well as health and consumer concerns.”


Published: 17 Jun 2013