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03 May 2019

BY PROFESSOR GEOFFREY J DOBB 

AMA representative on Health Star Rating Advisory Committee

You, like nearly all Australians, will be aware of the Health Star Rating (HSR) graphic that has appeared on the front labels of more than 13,000 processed and packaged foods since it was introduced. The AMA was present at both its conception and birth, and has generally supported the HSR system as it approaches its fifth birthday.

An AMA campaign to introduce front of package labelling using a ‘traffic light’ system was vigorously opposed by the food and grocery industry but resulted in a Working Group with public health, consumer, industry and government representatives that was excellently chaired by Ms Jane Halton, then Secretary at the Department of Health. The outcome was consensus support for the voluntary HSR system as a mean of providing summary information for consumers on the nutrient value of their purchases.

The calculator used to allocate the HSR is publicly available on the HSR website. In short, negative points for nutrients such as sugar, salt and saturated fat can be offset by positive points for fruit, vegetable, nut, legume and protein content. This highly nutrient focussed approach has been criticised by some, and has produced outcomes that may have surprised. Nevertheless, it is transparent to both consumers and industry, so encouraging reformulation to increase the HSR by reducing sugar content for example.

Some of the most controversial anomalies have been addressed by ensuring that the HSR is calculated on the content of the product ‘as sold’ except for the addition or drainage of water, rather than ‘as prepared’ with the addition of variable ingredients.

The HSR was conceived for and applied only to packaged and processed foods. The ratings are intended for comparisons within product lines; that is, to compare between breakfast cereals or between dairy products such as flavoured milks, for example. It was not originally intended to apply to fresh fruit and vegetables, though it can be argued that a five-star processed food should not be perceived as better nutrition than the fresh stuff. Also, the HSR is not a panacea for Australia’s obesity epidemic, though it can help consumers choose products in the supermarket.

In recent years there has been a relative lack of public health advertising that could encourage compliance with the Australian Dietary Guidelines, smaller serving sizes and regular exercise – these too will be important if we are to reduce over-weight and obesity. Because it is nutrient based the HSR does not consider if there are benefits from products that are ‘organic’ or ‘bio-dynamic’ despite advocacy that such products are inherently ‘healthier’. Claims for ‘organic’ content can be made elsewhere on the packaging.

Surveys have shown that 83 per cent of Australian consumers are aware of the HSR system with 75 per cent finding it easy to use and half reporting that it influenced their purchasing decisions. On the down side, many products still do not display the HSR and there is some evidence of bias towards displaying the HSR on products with more stars and not on those scoring poorly.

From the outset, it was intended that The HSR would be thoroughly reviewed as it reaches five years. A review prepared by independent consultants will go to the relevant State and Commonwealth Ministers in the second half of 2019. It is likely that changes will be proposed to the HSR calculator to further penalise high sugar and salt content and make some adjustment within product lines. Whether the HSR is applied to fresh fruit and vegetables remains to be seen.

However, changes are likely to apply to only a small minority of all the grocery products sold. Overall, it has been a success to which the AMA has contributed. Consumer recognition is high and uptake by the supermarkets’ own brands in particular has also been high. Participation by industry in the voluntary HSR system can and should be higher, but the AMA looks forward to the final report of the five-year review and the response by State and Commonwealth Ministers to its recommendations.

 


Published: 03 May 2019