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Ever looked at health star ratings on food products at the supermarket and wondered how they’re calculated? Perhaps you’re puzzled why a brand of orange juice has a 5-star rating, while your favourite flavour of potato chips has a 2.5-star rating, when neither seems especially nutritious.
It might make you question how much attention you should pay to health star ratings when you’re doing your grocery shop. The ratings can seem arbitrary, but Associate Professor Gary Sacks from Deakin University’s Faculty of Health says they can be a very helpful tool for consumers.
‘The aim of the health star ratings is to help guide people to healthier options within particular categories of food and help incentivise food companies to improve the healthiness of their products,’ he says.
Here, he outlines how nutrition experts determine health star ratings – and help you make healthier choices at the supermarket.
The front-of-pack health star rating system was introduced in Australia in 2014. It provides an overall rating out of five stars for each food product that’s calculated using an algorithm.
Even though it can be difficult to navigate the clutter of information on food packaging, Assoc. Prof. Sacks says the system really can help us make healthier choices.
‘In general, people don’t pay much attention to nutrition labelling, but there is good evidence that people have at least some awareness of health star ratings and that they find the health stars much easier to understand than the detailed nutrition information panels on the back of the pack.’
Assoc. Prof. Sacks believes many people have adjusted their grocery shopping habits because of the ratings.
‘Quite a large proportion of people say they have changed aspects of their shopping behaviour in response to health stars,’ he says.
Not all food products have a health star rating, and Assoc. Prof. Sacks says this is because the system is not mandatory.
‘The system is voluntary, so food companies can choose whether to put health star ratings on their products,’ says Assoc. Prof. Sacks.
He says some companies include a rating on all their products, while some only list a rating on products that score more stars.
It can be confusing when foods that seem healthier than others have a lower health star rating. The big question is: how are health star ratings calculated?
Assoc. Prof. Sacks says the ratings are determined by the overall nutrition value of a food. Foods gain and lose stars based on healthier ‘beneficial’ ingredients and less healthy ‘risk’ ingredients.
‘Products gain stars based on the content of beneficial ingredients and food components, such as fibre, protein, fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes,’ he says. ‘They lose stars based on the content of risk nutrients like saturated fat, energy, sugar and sodium.’
The algorithm factors each ingredient in each product to give an overall score. But the score is calculated slightly differently for products in different food categories. For example, the calculation for dairy foods is different to biscuits. This means that health stars are best used to compare products within similar categories.
Assoc. Prof. Sacks says the system would work best if all products were labelled with the health stars. That’s why public health groups have consistently called for stars to be made mandatory.
Some countries have taken food labelling to the next level, with products labelled with warning signs that alert consumers to unhealthy ingredients. Assoc. Prof. Sacks believes this is an effective measure that may soon be replicated in Australia.
‘The evidence shows that warning labels can be really effective from a public health point of view,’ he says. ‘There’s a strong argument for having both warning labels and health star ratings on products to really help inform people and guide their selections.’
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