The Health Star Rating system is promoting food high in fat, salt and sugar, experts say. The front-of-pack labelling scheme rates the nutritional value of packaged food.
The Health Star Rating system is promoting food high in fat, salt and sugar, experts say. The front-of-pack labelling scheme rates the nutritional value of packaged food.

Health stars promoting bad food habits

AUSTRALIA'S voluntary Health Star Rating system promotes, rather than discourages, foods high in fat, salt and sugar, experts warn.

The front-of-pack labelling scheme, introduced in 2014, rates the nutritional value of packaged food on a star system ranging from 0.5 to five stars. The more stars a product has, the healthier it is deemed to be.

Public health nutritionist and dietitian Helen Vidgen, of the Queensland University of Technology, said the scheme was drawing people's attention to ultra-processed foods rather than encouraging the selection of much healthier "core" foods, such as fruit and vegetables.

"Most of the foods that we want you to eat tend to be the things that aren't packaged and you can only put a front-of-label star rating sticker on a product that's packaged," she explained.

Dr Vidgen is one of the authors of a paper on the Health Star Rating system published today in Public Health Research and Practice, a journal of the Sax Institute, which argues the scheme contradicts some of the recommendations in the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

The number of health stars is based on an algorithm that awards bonus points for "positive" content such as fruit, nuts, vegetables, legumes, protein and fibre and takes points away for "negative" content, such as saturated fat, sugar, sodium and overall kilojoules.

Manufacturers self-assess the number of stars to put on their products based on the algorithm.

"Using a nutrient-based scoring algorithm to rate the healthiness of individual foods obscures the ability to discriminate between nutritious and discretionary foods," the paper says. "All 'negative' and 'positive' nutrients/components are scored equally regardless of whether they are derived from a nutritious or discretionary food. Exacerbating the problem is a lack of specification around the nature of the nutrient/component being rated."

For example, Dr Vidgen said the addition of fibre extracts and protein powders to discretionary foods, such as breakfast drinks, attracted the same number of points as an equal amount of naturally-occurring fibre and protein in nutritious foods.

"The fibre element is there to promote whole grains, not to encourage adding fibre into a product that's otherwise unhealthy," she said.

Dr Vidgen, a senior lecturer at QUT's School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, said the scheme, which was under review, should be monitored more by government to ensure food companies were held to account on whether they had accurately applied the stars.

She also called for changes to better reflect the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

"Diet has now been shown to be the leading risk factor to people's health in Australia," Dr Vidgen said. "This is the first time in our history that's happened - it's worse than smoking, worse than alcohol."

In a separate journal article, some of the experts involved in designing the Health Star Rating scheme, defended their approach, claiming it was "progressing well".

"People are changing purchasing behaviour by using the system to select healthier choices," they wrote. "The great majority of Health Star Ratings displayed on packs are accurate and industry is reformulating products to improve nutritive quality."