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Health star ratings: is your food as healthy as it seems?

HSR

By MIHIKA HEDGE

For shoppers looking to save time in the supermarket, health star ratings have become somewhat of a salvation, but recent reviews have uncovered misleading information.  

Health start ratings on food packaging have been a trusted source of information for consumers, but the system has come under scrutiny.

A front of pack labelling system, implemented in mid-2014, condenses the often convoluted nutritional information of a product into a rating from one-and-a-half to five stars. The system, adopted voluntarily by food and drink manufacturers, was designed to curb obesity rates and diet-related chronic diseases by supporting consumers in making health savvy choices.

HSR 2

A review of HSRs found loopholes in the system. Picture: Health Gauge / Flickr

However, a recent review of the system has isolated a glaring loophole. The selective use of health stars on some products at the exclusion of others has been slammed for its misleading effects on consumers vying for nutritious food.

A review of the progress of implementation, conducted two years after the introduction of the rating system, isolated two primary concerns regarding HSRs.

Popular brands including Milo and Nesquik used health star ratings that presumed a certain method of consumption, without indicating the assumption. Therefore, for products that are consumed with dairy and the addition of other ingredients, it was a common trend to calculate the HSR using skim and fat free alternatives, creating misleading information.

Selectively using HSRs on some products at the exclusion of others within the same brand created a “halo effect” whereby customers perceived all products to be healthy because of selectively using ratings.

Providing nutritional information and HSRs on the website of various brands but not on shelves lead to consumer misinformation, something that was an even greater issue for the time-poor consumer.

Listen to experts explain the importance of HSRs and how the system can be improved

In a statement to Panorama, Kellogg’s said “all of our cereal packaging carr(ies) health stars and our rollout on snacks has coincided with our new products that have been launched since. We’ve also made HSR information for all our snacks available on our website since last year.”

In a statement to Panorama, popular muesli brand Carmen’s cited these changes in defence of their selective rollout of the rating system, saying “we originally applied the Health Star Rating system in our breakfast range where it now applies to all products. We have commenced within our snacks range. We will of course implement any labelling system however while it is in review and there may be changes to the system we feel it best to wait until it is finalised.”

A formal five year report reviewing HSRs is set to be released in 2019.

[Feature image: U.S Department of Agriculture / Flickr]

Podcast

Interviewees: Craig Sinclair, Obesity Policy Coalition and Tom Godfrey, Choice

Music: Podington Bear freemusicarchive.org/music/podington_bear/

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