Food label scheme under fire

20:50, Jun 30 2014

A new system for labelling food with a star-based nutrition scale is flawed, ridiculous and sends the wrong message to children, a Manawatu weight-loss expert says.

Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye announced on Friday that the Government would adopt the new voluntary food labelling system developed as part of the Australian and New Zealand Ministers' Food Forum.

Foods would be rated from one to five, with more stars reflecting better nutritional value. The number of stars is determined by an algorithm that considers the overall nutritional value of the food.

Massey University organisational sociologist Dr Andrew Dickson, an expert in weight loss and obesity concerns, said the rating system was based on disputed information, such as the health factor of saturated fat, which sent the wrong message to children. "They're basing the star system on information that is contested, what we don't really know - and they're presenting it as fact - giving it more significance than it could possibly have and putting it on the front of a pack saying this is good or this is bad," Dickson said.

"I've been told that under the system low-fat strawberry milk would have better rating than whole milk, presumably because of fat content. Just think of the message that sends to a kid . . . you're telling a child that sugar-sweetened, with colouring added, altered, processed milk is better than what you get out of a cow. I mean, that's ridiculous on so many levels."

The system would also be abused by manufacturers that would use the star ratings only on certain products, he said.


"If you're going to do it, at least make it mandatory. People aren't going to be putting star rankings on star-1 products."

Nutrition Matters dietitian Gaye Philpott said there would always be faults with any system, but something needed to be done now to tackle New Zealand's obesity problem.

"It's important that we do give people an easy-to-understand system . . . There'll always be examples where it doesn't quite work . . . We've just got to accept that we've got to go with something and get on with it."

Philpott said other food labelling attempts, such as percentage of recommended daily intake, were complicated and difficult for some people to understand.

"The star rating is quite simplistic in its presentation . . . there's always going to be labelling of an ingredients list and nutritional information panel if people want to investigate further."

Dickson said he supported displaying nutritional information on packaging with the value per 100 grams but he understood some people were confused by this.

"The reason that's confusing is because science is complex, and when you try and present it and communicate it to people, the more simple you make that information the higher the risk you're relying on some other system of judgment."

Dickson said regulating the food industry should be done "under the surface", with a punitive tax regime on foods such as soft drinks.

Kaye said she hoped to see the first health star labels on products within six to 12 months.

"I believe that this is a very positive step towards empowering New Zealanders to make healthier food choices."

Manawatu Standard