Health Star rating system 'may mislead shoppers'
New Zealand shoppers would be able to put more faith in Health Star ratings if they did not allow manufacturers to compensate for having "bad" ingredients by adding more "good", commentators say.
The rating system was launched in 2014 and now appears on the front of about 1500 packaged foods in New Zealand. It is designed to make it easier for shoppers to choose healthy good options. The star is determined based on fibre, protein, fruit, vegetable nut and legume content compared to the amount of saturated fat, energy, total sugar and sodium.
But there has been controversy – Nestle came under fire for achieving a 4.5-star rating for Milo, on the basis that it was prepared with low-fat milk. Nutri-Grain, which is 27 per cent sugar, also achieves four stars because it has good levels of fibre and protein.
Consumer NZ has made a submission to the Health Star Rating Advisory Committee which is conducting a two-year progress review of the system, recommending that there be a limit to the amount of stars a high-sugar, high-fat or high-sodium product can attain.
"If sugary snacks can qualify for high ratings, we think consumers will increasingly lose confidence in the system. High star ratings on these foods also risk misleading shoppers that the products are a better choice."
It also wants more penalty points for added sugars, and to stop manufacturers basing their calculations on unrealistic assumptions about how the products will be prepared.
The committee is due to report mid this year to the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation.
Auckland University marketing expert Bodo Lang said the star system could be misleading. "A number of products, if you asked anyone do you think this is healthy they would say it's not, but it still gets four Health Star ratings."
He said that was possible because the compensatory system allowed manufacturers to offset bad ingredients with good.
"It's like saying if I'll take off your finger but give you some spinach. Overall, you're still worse off. A good thing plus a bad thing doesn't make a neutral thing. That's the fundamental flaw and particularly the case with sugar. "
He said manufacturers knew how to game the system and, if they knew a product needed a certain level of sugar to make it taste good, would add fibre to try to offset it. "The better option would be to have non-compensatory rules."
But University of Auckland professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu, who is part of the New Zealand Health Star Rating Labelling Advisory Group, said it was a system that customers could have faith in.
She said there was a case for making it compulsory, particularly if the uptake was not wide enough on a voluntary basis. She said it would only really benefit consumers if it was taken up widely and across a range of products.
Anyone who had concerns could raise them during the evaluation process, she said.